Howdy Modi had nothing of enduring value for India

The US President John F. Kennedy (R) received India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (L) at the airport in Rhode Island, Washington, November 1961.

The art of flattery, contrary to what one might think, is a complicated affair. If it is too straightforward, it runs the risk of appearing artificial, especially when the flatterer contrives to combine strict truth of fact with a vast atmosphere of awe and mystery. 

The eulogy that President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi lavished showered at each other at the Howdy Modi in Houston, Texas, on Sunday was entirely improbable. The Oriental hyperbole served one purpose, though. They were marketing each other. 

Trump said Modi is presiding over a flourishing economy which is creating plentiful jobs for Indians. Modi introduced Trump as the American president who has made his country “great again” — and is a rock star globally. 

The only disappointing part was that Trump made no big “announcements” regarding the US-India relationship, as predicted by the Indian media. Trump made a vintage election speech instead, outlining to the Texans and the Indian-Americans why he richly deserved a second term in the White House. 

On US-India, Trump was forthright about his expectation to export more products to the Indian market, civilian and military. He pledged support for India’s “border security” from human trafficking and its fight against “radical Islamic terrorism”, giving a free run to the Indian imagination to interpret the enigmatic remarks. Trump was mindful of his forthcoming meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan shortly.

From the Indian perspective, what mattered most was that Trump steered clear of the Kashmir issue. From Modi’s own perspective, the resonance of Trump’s presence at the Houston show may help boost his image in India, notwithstanding the economy in recession and J&K in turmoil. 

However, Trump is the real winner — that is, assuming Modi can persuade the Indian-American voters to switch loyalty from the Democratic Party. Over three quarters of the Indian-American community had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.   

But the Democratic candidates wouldn’t take kindly to India’s blatant interference in America’s domestic politics. The 2020 election is wide open and every vote is going to count. 

Bernie Sander’s Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle lambasting Trump for soft-medaling on Kashmir issue appeared on the same morning as the Howdy Modi show. 

It’s not only sad that India is alienating Democratic stalwarts but potentially Howdy Modi was a bloomer too insofar as by present indications, Joe Biden enjoys a double-digit lead over Trump. 

In fact, on Kashmir issue, the two post-Cold War Democratic presidencies — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — have been most helpful. 

While Clinton choreographed the post-Cold War turnaround in US-Indian relations and personally ensured that the Pakistani troops vacated Kargil heights, Obama reversed the molly-coddling of Pakistan by his Republican predecessor and dispatched the “Non-NATO ally” to limbo.  

Trump is a very shrewd man. He surprised many last Wednesday when he told reporters in Los Angeles that he had yet to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Israeli election results appeared, and added: “The relations are between our countries.” 

Yet, just a few days ago, pictures of Trump and Netanyahu were decorating billboards across Israel, as part of the latter’s election campaign. It seems Trump is preparing to distance himself from a guy he sees as a loser. Again, when Saudi Arabia, the US’ closest ally in the Middle East, came under attack recently, Trump offered to protect the Kingdom from more attacks — provided, Riyadh would bankroll the enterprise. Now, that is quintessential Trump for you. 

Suffice to say, Howdy Modi boils down to a Modi-Trump joint venture, which has been hyped up by their political managers to extract maximum publicity for the two bosses. 

If Trump hoped to capitalise on the spectacle for enhancing the prospects of his increasingly difficult bid for a second term, Modi who is besieged by mounting problems at home is also in need of a gig in America to boost his public image. 

The event’s enduring value is in doubt. Trump, at least, walked away with an Indian investment of $2.5 billion in his America First project in the shale industry. But what has India got out of Howdy India in substantive terms? 

Trump offered that India will enjoy the privilege of buying more “Made in America” products and, secondly,  that an NBA team will come to visit to play a basket ball match in Mumbai for the first time ever. Big deal?   

The spin is making much out of an American president appearing with an Indian prime minister on a public stage. But did you ever get to know that Nehru was greeted by President Harry S. Truman at the airport in 1949 and by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 — or that no Indian prime minister had the privilege since?