openIndia: Opinion

A fine day out in Houston with Trump and Modi

Self-interest multiplied by mutual admiration made for a triumphal rally when the US president and India’s prime minister took the stage together.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
12 November 2019
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi on stage at a rally in Houston, 22 September 2019
Best friends
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TNS/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Two events held on the same day, 22 September, confused India-watchers. At ‘Howdy Modi’, a gigantic political extravaganza in Houston, more than 50,000 ‘Am-Indians’ kept cheering Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump. India appeared like a super power strutting on the global stage! Modi sold an America-sized India!

The India projected in a meeting in Bangalore was very different, afflicted with social degradation, faux nationalism, mob lynching, rising religious intolerance and falling economic growth. The speaker presenting this negative analysis was noted TV journalist Ravish Kumar, the occasion his receipt of the first Gauri Lankesh Memorial Award, in memory of the activist and journalist who was murdered in 2017. He cautioned the young Indians that bigotry they were learning in WhatsApp University would destroy their future. The audience nodded in agreement.

Hundreds of millions of Indians who have given two overwhelming electoral victories to Modi do not share Kumar’s grim assessment. Most Indians have not read the Forbes article that advises Modi to remain in India and fix its economy instead of travelling abroad to tell foreigners how well his country is doing. Nevertheless many Indians, including intellectuals and creative persons, agree with Kumar, who is trolled by Modi’s army of volunteers and the BJP employees dominating social media. There are any number of academics, writers, artists, ordinary concerned citizens and retired civil servants expressing anxiety about the direction that India has taken.

The large Houston gathering of Am-Indians felt no trace of anxiety about India. The audience filling a large stadium did not want its adoration of Modi to be affected by reports of mob lynching, bigotry or the violation of human rights in their ancestral land. Elation electrified it. Modi fuelled its euphoria by declaring that everything is fine in India. He repeated this freshly minted slogan in different Indian languages. It reminded one of the ‘3 Idiots’ film song ‘All Izz Well’, sung by students to calm their nerves despite anxiety about their future.

Fawning

Kumar’s acceptance speech offered a cutting criticism of Indian media that overlook ordinary people’s problems and spread hate in order to distract voters from the Modi government’s failures. This criticism was validated on the same day by the lengthy, fawning coverage of the Houston event. Indian media had little interest in those protesting against Modi because of civil right abuses in Jammu and Kashmir and mob violence against the Muslim minority in India.

As was expected, the ‘nationalist’ TV anchors and reporters indulged in ‘Pak-bashing’. Even Pakistani immigrants in the US were not spared. They were called “taxi drivers” and contrasted with highly successful immigrants from India. Of course, the commentator would not applaud the Nehruvian ethos that nurtured such Indians, equipping them for their success in America. That would have gone against the barrage of Modi’s propaganda that nothing was done in India till he assumed power in 2014.

Socialist democracy is no longer fashionable, which means that many criticise the state’s dominant role despite benefitting from it. Without state-subsidised education, millions of young Indians would have been denied access to higher education. This topic figures in the conferences run in the US by Pan IIT, an organisation for alumni of all Indian Institutes of Technology. As one IIT director remarked in jest, Nehru rightly said that the IITs would produce ‘the leaders of tomorrow’ but he did not say ‘the leaders for America’. Trump will not compensate India for the supply of highly skilled personnel to his country. Nor will Modi raise this issue with his friend.

Unexpectedly, a laudatory reference to Nehru cropped up at ‘Howdy Modi’. Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, majority leader in the House of Representatives, wanted India to secure its future in accordance with Nehru’s vision of a secular and democratic nation with respect for pluralism and human rights. Nehru, he said, had imbibed Gandhi’s message “to wipe every tear from every eye”. He also referred to Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a society with malice towards none.

Now that was the last thing that Modi wanted to hear, since he holds Nehru responsible for India’s ills. Modi kept his face composed, determined to do business with Republican Trump, who has no time for noble principles and ideals. They are made for each other.

“Ab ki baar Trump sarkar!”

Interfering in America’s domestic politics, Modi nudged the Am-Indians to ditch the Democrats and vote for Trump in the presidential elections. Modi shouted “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar!” (“The Trump administration again!”). Trump looked satisfied.

The polarisation affecting India since Modi’s victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections has also gripped people of Indian origin in the US. Some dislike Modi but large sections of Am-India rally behind him. Some are bewitched by Modi’s popular appeal and communications skills. Others see him as a decisive leader who will raise India’s profile and thus their status in the US. Some see Modi as useful for promoting their business interests in India. There are digital patriots galore in the Indian community.

Above all are ‘Hollywood Hindus’ drawn to Modi, acclaimed as the ‘emperor of Hindu hearts’ by many of his supporters. ‘Hollywood Hindus’ is a term coined by V.S. Naipaul to describe those in the US who live in a culturally alien atmosphere and feel less insecure about their religious identity because of the Hindutva – muscular nationalist Hinduism – that Modi’s party and its parent organisation, the RSS, propagate. This section enjoys the security and safety given by the liberal atmosphere of their adopted country but wants the motherland to follow a different path. It supports majoritarianism in India even at the cost of religious violence.

Shared hatred

Modi had plenty of personal gratification. Denied a US visa in 2005 for his failure as the Gujarat chief minister during the communal riots of 2002 that left about 1000 Muslims dead, he was now proudly escorted by the US president on a red carpet running longer than the one unrolled for the Oscars. But bilateral relations are not just about personal chemistry between two leaders.

Pragmatism has strengthened Indo-American relations. After 9/11, the US became more tolerant of hatred and bigotry directed against Muslims. This has given the Modi government greater flexibility in the area of human rights. Trump’s attack on Islamic terrorism got the loudest applause by the Am-Indian audience.

Because of Chinese power, successive US governments have lowered their traditional hostility towards India. Modi in turn has raised US hopes of selling more defence equipment and closer strategic and military partnership.

Modi’s biggest shift, however, has been in opening India’s huge market for new opportunities for US business in several sectors. Trump prides himself as a deal-maker. Modi too has the instinct for cutting deals, holding out promises of a modified foreign policy and strategic convergence. Thus, Trump lost no time in accepting Modi’s invitation to appear with him, hand and hand, and get introduced to what Modi called his large family of Am-Indians. All this prepared the ground for the outstanding success of the Houston extravaganza.

Prince and emperor

The mega-event went off without a hitch. Some drum-beating Indian TV anchors were initially a bit wary and kept referring to Trump’s unpredictable and disruptive tweets. However, Trump gave no surprise and dropped no brick.

As members of a mutual admiration society, Modi and Trump sang from the same hymn sheet. Both said what a wonderful person the other was and what a wonderful job he had done in developing his country. Modi used more superlatives for admiring Trump. It seemed like an Indian prince of yore paying tributes to the British emperor. Trump showed no sign of embarrassment because modesty is not a virtue in the US. Indians are different, so Modi kept bending forward to greet the audience.

The two leaders made their election campaign speeches, detailing their achievements and seeking to impress voters with their report cards. Facts do not matter in an emotionally surcharged atmosphere. One does not pore over dry documents to scrutinise statistics when the enemy is at the gate! Modi was simultaneously conveying his message to the audiences back home: the live TV show began during prime time in India.

Trump, seeking to be president for a second term, got exposure to a huge live audience: political rallies in the US are usually much smaller. He sent a reassuring signal to Am-Indians that when he calls the immigrants termites he would not have them in mind. That and Modi’s endorsement of him will surely wean away some traditional Democrat voters. Indian-Americans will loosen their purse-strings more for the Trump campaign because he has called himself as their greatest friend.

Already the Modi government, to the satisfaction of the US State department, has distanced itself further from the Non-Aligned Movement. US hostility towards Iran may influence India. The Indian diaspora in the US favours such a flexibility in India’s foreign policy.

Modi’s winnings

Modi also got his due in the bargain. He left Houston as a victorious knight with more ammunition for poll campaigns. The images of him with Trump radiate power. Modi, consecrated by the US, has an enhanced stature. The stamp of foreign approval, be it for a book, a bottle of wine or a prime minister, impresses Indians.

Modi ensured that Trump does not waver in his approval of the scrapping of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir: at that rally, US media and human rights activists could not push him to show concern for the besieged Kashmiris. US support on Kashmir means a diplomatic setback to Pakistan.

On that subject, Trump’s references to Islamic terrorism emboldened Modi to attack Pakistan, although without naming it. Trump, listening to the simultaneous translation of Modi’s speech, raised no eyebrows, though he later said that he had no prior information that Modi would be making that “aggressive” statement. Given the threats to US interests in Afghanistan, Trump could reassess the strategic importance of Pakistan: Modi wants to ensure that Trump does not correct his tilt towards India in the process.

Trump’s remarks against illegal immigrants implied that the Modi government is fully justified in its campaign to weed them out in Assam, a campaign that has robbed thousands of genuine citizens of their citizenship.

So, apart from projecting his personal power and India’s strengths, Modi promoted some foreign policy objectives. It all cost millions of dollars but at least the money came from sponsors and people of Indian origin living in the US, not Indian taxpayers.

The Hollywood Hindus could not have skipped a Modi event. Many others joined them to enjoy a grand spectacle. Am-Indians, who work very hard during the week, spent Sunday watching Indian classical dances and two top political performers. A good time was had by all!

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