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  Opinion   Oped  19 Sep 2019  Trump at ‘Howdy Modi’: 2 leaders who are so different, and yet share so much

Trump at ‘Howdy Modi’: 2 leaders who are so different, and yet share so much

The writer is a former ambassador
Published : Sep 19, 2019, 1:28 am IST
Updated : Sep 19, 2019, 1:28 am IST

For Modi, it’s the ultimate triumph of his personal charisma and his brand of diplomacy on American soil.

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)
  Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)

On the face of it, there is nothing in common between US President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr Trump is a billionaire businessman; a colourful TV show host with a flamboyant, playboyish, controversy-filled personal life who was catapulted as the 45th US President in January 2017, dashing the hopes of the first woman presidential candidate. Mr Modi, on the other hand, has spent his formative years at the grassroots level as a trained and disciplined swayamsewak of the RSS who rose to be the chief minister of Gujarat for13 years, earned accolades for his development and administrative record and emerged as Prime Minister of India in May 2014 after inflicting a crushing defeat on the 129-year-old Congress Party, reducing its tally to a humiliating 44 seats. Successfully completing five years and increasing the BJP’s majority in Parliament following the 2019 elections, Mr Modi has metamorphosed into the most popular national leader of India today — his diehard supporters will claim that he will go down in history as India’s most transformative Prime Minister!

Though President Trump may still think he is the chairman of an MNC with unfettered authority to hire and fire, the fact that, in less than two years, over 50 of his senior colleagues, including secretaries of state, NSAs, the attorney-general and the chief strategist have either resigned or have been sacked speaks volumes about his unorthodox style of working. Mr Modi chooses his Cabinet colleagues with a meticulous analysis of their capabilities, the political impact of their appointment on the national/regional fortunes of the BJP, their compatibility with his own work culture, and above all, their ability to perform and deliver as expected. He has dropped several of his ministerial colleagues after evaluating their performance but without slighting them publicly. And for those whom he likes, trusts and admires, the sky is the only limit. The appointment of former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as external affairs minister and the elevation of P.K. Mishra as his principal secretary with Cabinet rank underlines this facet of Mr Modi’s administrative approach.

Mr Trump relishes bluster and brinkmanship and putting maximum pressure to achieve his goals. He threatened in the UNGA to destroy North Korea but, months later, met its young dictator Kim Jong-un, half his age, in Singapore and declared that he was in love with him! His handling of China and Iran underline the use of the carrot and stick — unwisely, he uses threats and intimidation to bring his opponents to the negotiating table, rather than time-tested quiet diplomacy.

Mr Modi focuses on the broader picture and doesn’t mind offering some short-term concessions if this can serve larger interests in the long run. Whether dealing with the US, China or Pakistan or any country, if India’s national interest is at stake, Mr Modi stands firm and resolute, making it crystal clear that pressure won’t work with him.

Mr Modi’s grip on his party and the government in India is stronger than Mr Trump’s. Mr Modi is obviously far more popular in the Indian diaspora than Mr Trump could ever be among overseas Americans. Mr Modi believes in hitting several birds with a single stone — his every move is driven by his determination to achieve multiple objectives with a single decision/gesture.

Both Mr Trump and Mr Modi are very active on Twitter with millions of followers, but unlike Mr Trump, whose tweets are blunt statements on external relations and domestic policies which leave his friends and foes jittery on account of their disruptive implications, Mr Modi mostly uses his tweets to project positivity about India and his party and generate goodwill and friendship with those who matter.

Interestingly, both agree on one thought: Nothing much happened during the time of their predecessors of rival parties and they are destined to make their countries great again!

The joint appearance of Mr Trump and Mr Modi at “Howdy Modi” in Houston on September 22, in front of a 50,000-strong Indian diaspora, twice the size of the audience that greeted Mr Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York in 2014, is turning into a U2 rock concert! This will be the first such public jugalbandi of the leaders of the oldest and largest democracies, so similar and dissimilar to each other, pursuing their respective goals.

For Mr Modi, it’s the ultimate triumph of his personal charisma and his brand of diplomacy on American soil. It must be immensely satisfying for him that the infamously egoistical President of the United States, a country which had denied him a visa for 10 years, publicly acknowledges his immense hold on the psyche of his own citizens with Indian roots and expects that his appearance at this Indian diaspora function might be taken by the majority of the audience as an indirect endorsement by the Indian Prime Minister of his (Mr Trump’s) candidature for a second term. Conversely, the US President’s appearance at the function for Mr Modi also enhances the profile of the Indian-American community, which already has several Congressmen and Senators and has emerged as the second-most influential community after the Jewish community with its fund-raising clout, as the builders of innovative America from academia to Silicon Valley, and from the banking sector and healthcare to Nasa.

After his tumultuous interactions with the Indian diaspora in New York, San Diego, UK (Wembley), Australia (Melbourne), Canada and the UAE, Mr Modi has demonstrated his enviable connect with them — it also sends a subtle message to the concerned governments not to undertake any anti-India policies. Mr Modi has emerged as the most popular world leader of his era, far ahead of Mr Trump, Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe. The Economist wrote on October 3, 2015, “In the contest for popularity in America, Modi is beating Xi hands down.” After his visit to Silicon Valley, a blog of the New York Times carried a screaming headline: “Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, conquers Silicon Valley.”

This international megastar status of Mr Modi will be encashed by his party in forthcoming elections in India.

It would also send a strategic message to China, Pakistan and other countries, not too friendly with India, to take note which way India is moving.

Mr Trump does nothing for free. Sensing that he can draw some benefit from the event, he won’t call India the tariff king at the moment nor would he rake up the issue of Harley-Davidson bikes, but certainly would press Mr Modi to buy more oil, gas and defence equipment and bridge the trade imbalance. Mr Modi might offer some trade deals but would also insist on access to cutting-edge technologies. He may also tell Mr Trump firmly: No mediatory role in India-Pakistan disputes.

While expressing his delight over Mr Trump’s decision to join the mega event, Mr Modi sees it as reflection of “the strength of the (India-US) relationship and recognition of the contribution of the Indian community to American society and economy.”

The White House put it in perspective, “The event will be a ‘great opportunity’ to emphasise the strong ties between the people of the US and India, to reaffirm the strategic partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, and to discuss ways to deepen their energy and trade relationships.”

Tags: donald trump, narendra modi, howdy modi