‘Howdy Modi’ is a win-win. But does it matter?

The Houston Texans football stadium where Prime Minister Modi will address a rally on September 22, 2019

PM Modi takes to the stage Sunday at the NRG Stadium at Houston, Texas, in an event billed Howdy Modi, sponsored by “hundreds of Indian-American groups”. The event was choreographed to celebrate Modi’s return to America after what seemed an interminably long gap of 2 years and three months. 

The political managers of Modi and President Trump since negotiated a deal leading to the latter’s guest appearance at Howdy Modi. The Washington Post noted, “For Trump, the rally provides access to a pool of voters — Indian Americans — that he hopes to court in next year’s presidential elections, even if the community tends to lean heavily Democratic.” 

Modi government is apparently willing to make some trade concession to the US that “would allow Trump to claim a victory on one of his signature issues” — to quote from the WaPo report. The external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, probably alluded to it when he told reporters Tuesday that he expected to see some of the “sharper edges” in the U.S.-India relationship “addressed in some form in the not-too-distant future”. Trump has alluded to making some big announcement during Howdy Modi.

Texas was one of the potential “swing states” in the 2016 US presidential election, where Trump won by a 9% margin over Hillary Clinton. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.) But the ground beneath Trump’s feet is shifting. 

The Republican retirements from the House of Representatives have given Democrats hope of expanding their gains next year in Texas, where changing demographics in suburbs have reshaped the electorate in some districts. Texas may be emerging as a battleground heading into the 2020 campaign and the state’s rapidly diversifying suburbs where growth isn’t just centred around Hispanics but include Asian Americans. A very heavily immigrant community will decide Trump’s prospects in Texas. 

Modi is also scheduling meetings in Houston with energy CEOs including the heads of Exxon Mobil and Cheniere Energy. Modi has informed Trump that India wants to continue being a buyer of US energy and, more importantly, has big plans to make investments in shale industry. Energy is a key template of “America First”. Trump instinctively promised to ensure that top US energy officials will be in attendance in Houston. 

 In sum, Delhi made an offer to Trump he couldn’t possibly refuse. Having said that, Howdy Modi is also a win-win. For Modi too, the event brings a bonanza. 

The camaraderie on display is expected to boost Modi’s image, which took a beating recently over Kashmir and from the government’s abject failure on the economic front. 

Modi places great store for his legacy as the “first Indian Prime Minister” who has done something or has visited X-Y-Z countries. And Howdy Modi is the first time that any US president and Indian prime minister will have addressed a public rally together. It’s a big deal for Modi. 

Modi stands to gain by projecting that Trump’s presence at the rally signifies the US’ acquiescence with what Delhi has done in J&K. Indeed, Trump himself seems to be conscious of such a possibility. At any rate, the day after after Howdy Modi, he’ll have a bilateral meeting with Imran Khan in New York. 

Trump is open to a resumption of the talks with the Taliban and Imran Khan has openly stated that the Afghan peace process brooks no delay. 

While Trump can’t help it if Indians cite his presence at Howdy Modi as a diplomatic triumph for Delhi’s muscular Kashmir policies, he is making sure that the understanding he has reached with Imran Khan will not get eroded. 

Trump openly empathised with Pakistan’s stance that Kashmir is a “Muslim issue” and offers every now and then to to mediate, but that is not keeping him away from Howdy India to espouse his affinities with Indians.  

Trump gets away with it because he is singularly devoid of emotions. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu just had a bitter taste of it. 

Not too long ago, Trump had joined King Salman of Saudi Arabia for an Al-Ardha, the traditional men’s sword dance of the bedouins, in a nostalgic reminder of former heroic battles, bringing to life timeless victories and pride of Saudi history. But when Saudi Arabia actually came under attack Saturday, Trump ducked. He feels Saudi Arabia’s defence is entirely its business, not America’s — and if at all the US were to protect Saudi Arabia, Saudis should bankroll it. 

Netanyahu also used to propagate that he had Trump eating out of his hands, but when he needed Trump in the elections this week, the latter didn’t deliver. 

There was no on-the-record confirmation of support from the White House for Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation decision, nor did Netanyahu receive the defence pact he sought from the US, making do with a vague promise from Trump to speak about it when they meet next time. 

The Jerusalem Post ruefully commented when the election results came, “Perhaps potential voters thought: ‘If Bibi isn’t as close with Trump as he used to be, maybe he isn’t so indispensable after all.’”

The point is, the Indian Diaspora in America may get delusional but Modi himself would know Trump by now. Why such a gig in Texas, which must be costing a fortune to the Sangh Parivar? 

In 2016, Modi government rooted for Hillary Clinton — and Trump won. What if Joe Biden wins in 2020? Palmer Report says Biden currently enjoys a double-digit lead over Trump.

Rahul Gandhi has a point when he tweeted, “Howdy” economy doin’, Mr Modi? Ain’t too good it seems.” Howdy Modi does seem an act of escapism from the economy and Kashmir, and it doesn’t add up.