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After Modi-Trump duet, reality check lies ahead

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Sep 24, 2019, 1:14 am IST
Updated : Sep 24, 2019, 1:14 am IST

On arrival, he met the top honchos of energy giants.

President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: AP)
 President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: AP)

The Narendra Modi government ended the constitutional guarantees of limited autonomy for Kashmir by abrogating Articles 370 and 35A on August 5. The Valley was locked down and mainstream Kashmiri leaders interned. Farooq Abdullah, the veteran leader, nationalist and a former CM, was detained under the draconian Public Safety Act.

The government assiduously denies that the situation in the Valley, particularly Srinagar, is not normal. Against this background, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his America visit on Sunday in Houston, the world’s energy capital. On arrival, he met the top honchos of energy giants. The US is today a major producer and exporter of oil and gas. After the Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq was attacked on September 14, 5.7 million barrels per day went off the market. President Donald Trump said the US would fill the gap and did so by releasing oil from America’s strategic reserves. India’s purchase agreement for five million tons of LNG per year diversifies Indian supplies, reducing its dependence on Qatar, subject to the periodic fear of a US-Saudi standoff disrupting Gulf energy supplies. It also addresses US President Trump’s constant refrain that trade is in India’s favour and needs rebalancing.

Before the “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston, attended by 50,000, mostly Indian-Americans, the US state department’s South Asia bureau tweeted that the US President joining the event “is a truly historic tribute to the contributions of the Indian-American community to the prosperity of our country and the strength of US-India relations”. Clearly, US diplomats wanted to attribute the hoopla to the Indian diaspora’s success rather than geostrategic factors. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, standing in for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, set the tone. He talked of “growing partnership” between the two democracies and shared dreams and hopes. He recalled the opening three words of the Constitutions of both nations — “We the People”. All are created equal, he added, underscoring the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in both nations. However, as his Democratic Party is realising, and the Opposition in India knows, the proclivity of both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi is to favour redefined national interests over constitutional niceties.

The Modi-Trump duet was unique and dramatic. Mr Modi first introduced his guest in English, lavishing laudatory praise, tantamount to exaggerated flattery. This was calculated correctly to massage the gargantuan ego of the self-infatuated US President. For Mr Trump, the large gathering of Modi bhakts was a vital electoral resource for the 2020 presidential race, which is expected to be close. Apparently, a quarter of the four million-plus Indian diaspora in the US vote for Republicans. In Texas, with 38 electoral college votes, Mr Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016 by over 700,000 votes. However, recent polls indicate the gap has disappeared. Nationally, Mr Trump trailed by 2.87 million votes and won only because the US electoral college system is weighted in favour of smaller states. The Indian diaspora has therefore become a vital target audience.

Thus unsurprisingly, President Trump’s address sounded like a re-election speech, with occasional references to India-US relations. He emphasised shared values like the rule of law and liberty. He boasted of low inflation, low unemployment, tax cuts and deregulation. All these are themes that the Modi government constantly proclaims as core achievements. In addition, just as Mr Trump’s facts are often padded, the Indian government’s data is considered equally dodgy. Seeking Indian investments, Mr Trump noted good defence cooperation and Indian defence purchases topping $18 billion. The coming tri-services joint exercise “Tiger Triumph” was approvingly noted. The US, he said, will ensure India’s energy security by increased energy supplies. Finally, the “Islamic terrorism” card brought an Islamophobic audience to their feet, much as Mr Trump’s core base among right-wing whites would have responded. Ironically, the Indian-Americans failed to realise that to a bigoted white American, most Indians look no different from Pakistanis or indeed the bearded and turbaned Sikhs from the Afghani Taliban.

Mr Modi’s Hindi peroration was largely tuned to audiences back home, especially in the two crucial poll-bound states, Haryana and Maharashtra. The Modi government’s five-year record and electoral success was narrated to a captive US President, as much to edify him about the Modi phenomena as to show India’s Modi-the-statesman conducting a tutorial for the US President. Did former US President Barack Obama’s remark that then PM Manmohan Singh was his “guru” drive this? But there were three notable elements. Mr Modi used multiple Indian languages to convey peace and prosperity in India. This shrewdly shelved the “one-language one-nation” faux pas by home minister Amit Shah. The selectively used formulae of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” and “unity in diversity” were then trotted out. This was a riposte to the sporadic clamour in the US Congress over Kashmir handling. Finally, he entrapped Mr Trump by raising the abrogation of Article 370, urging mostly American citizens, having pledged loyalty to the US, to acclaim approval for a highly political act in India, which was part of the BJP’s core agenda. He ended up by indirectly lambasting Pakistan as the vortex of terror that led to 9/11 in the US and 26/11 in Mumbai.

Mr Modi mixed adroitly domestic Indian politics, the Pakistani challenge and India-US relations. However, danger lurks in such wooing of a mercurial US President, particularly by endorsing him using a revised Modi slogan “Abki baar Trump Sarkar”. An op-ed in Sunday morning’s Houston Chronicle by Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders urged President Trump to raise human rights abuses in Kashmir. Partisan politics can negatively impact India-US relations if Democrats win the presidency in 2020. That relationships are between nations, not individuals, became clear when after Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, a sworn Trump acolyte, trailed after the recent elections, President Trump did not even call him.

The US government will probably rebalance the impression after Houston’s theatrics that the US fully endorses the Modi government’s J&K gambit. Diplomacy can have dramatic interludes, but drama can’t alter fundamental geostrategic positions. For example, trade issues apparently remained log-jammed and hence Mr Trump never made his promised announcement, which everyone assumed was restoration of GSP preferential treatment for certain Indian goods. Next week, at the UN General Assembly’s high-level summit, euphoria will get a reality check. As Mr Modi attends the climate summit convened by the UN Secretary-General, Mr Trump will preside over a “freedom of faith” summit, mainly about Christian evangelism. “Sabka Saath” may be easier to articulate in Houston than to defend in New York.

Tags: articles 370, narendra modi