Quick Take

To be meaningful, #HowdyModi has to go beyond optics

| Updated on September 23, 2019

US President Donald Trump participates in the "Howdy Modi" event with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas, US.   -  Reuters

The strategic interests of India and the US are not always congruent, and embracing Trump publicly and wholeheartedly comes with limited upside.

By any measurable metric, the #HowdyModi rally in Houston on Sunday was a high-on-optics spectacle that projected political power – even if it came with a sprinkling of kitschy culture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had President Donald Trump – and an assemblage of bipartisan US lawmakers and governors – alongside him onstage, to the cheering adulation of some 50,000 Indian-Americans.

In their respective speeches, Modi and Trump pandered to each other’s perception of themselves as immensely popular leaders whom destiny has entrusted to restore their countries to their erstwhile greatness. In that enterprise, both the leaders have inverted the rules of the political game in their own home turfs with their distinctively rough-edged and populist rhetoric. On Sunday, they basked in mutual admiration – and in the adoration of their political constituents in the US.

And yet, for all the feel-good effect of such optics in conveying bilateral bonhomie, their utilitarian value in bending the arc of the broader relationship between the two countries is somewhat limited. In the past, too, Modi’s image managers had amplified his personal chemistry with Trump and with former President Barack Obama (whom Modi uncharacteristically referred to by his first name).

But Modi’s hands-on “hugplomacy” bore at best limited results. It did not, for instance, inhibit Trump from calling out India – and Modi personally – during the hardball negotiations over bilateral trade tariffs and at the WTO, and in the context of Trump’s expectation that India must do some heavy lifting in securing Afghanistan in order to facilitate US troop withdrawal from there. Similarly, the Trump administration has not fully accommodated India’s legitimate concerns under the tightened H-1B visa regime, which delivers on his ‘America First’ campaign promise.

Even on the chessboard of geopolitics, it is not clear that the strategic interests of India and the US are always congruent. India may momentarily be looking to capitalise on the full-scale trade war with China that Trump has unleashed. And Trump’s invocation of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” at the #HowdyModi rally may have heartened Modi to the extent that it tied in with the objective of painting Pakistan as a hub of jihadi terror. But given Trump’s famously short attention span, and the sheer compulsions that will require the US establishment to work with both China and Pakistan, embracing Trump publicly and wholeheartedly, as Modi did at Houston, only offers limited upside. One of history’s harshest lessons is that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Published on September 23, 2019

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