audience in Houston
on September 22
DONALD TRUMP is not accustomed to playing second fiddle to anyone. He made his name by acting the part of a boardroom tyrant in The Apprentice. The moment he entered national politics four years ago, he became the man to beat on the American right. His incessant campaign rallies before fervently loyal crowds are staged, with forgettable warm-up speakers and Trump-anticipatory fanfare, entirely for the purpose of magnifying the magical persona of Donald J Trump. The president sucks oxygen from the political room; he routinely takes advice from no one. Being the star turn, you could say, is a central part of his brand.
His willingness to appear, at Houston NRG stadium on September 22nd, as a mere sidekick to a visiting foreign leader was therefore a radical departure. So radical, indeed, that it was possible to wonder whether Trump had fully realised what he was letting himself in for. The 50,000-odd Indian Americans who flocked to the stadium to say “Howdy, Modi!” to the visiting Indian Prime Minister represented as big and fervent a crowd as almost any Trump has experienced. They represented a fifth of Texas’ Indian American population—though many had travelled in from other states, wearing NaMo T-shirts, saffron cowboy boots and hats, Tricolour face-paint and other Indo-political paraphernalia.
Vande Mataram blared through the stadium’s speakers—not Elton John and the Stones, Trump’s campaigning favourites. Hardly anyone wore the president’s trademark red MAGA hat—which was unsurprising. Most Indian Americans vote Democratic. In 2016, over three-quarters preferred Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. For the first time in a long time, therefore when he appeared on stage alongside Modi (to roars of “Mo-Di! Mo-Di!”), the American president was in front of a crowd, but it was not his crowd.
The fact that stadium crowds and Modi mania are now taken for granted whenever the Indian premier comes visiting is in itself remarkable; and a sign of the growing bullishness among prosperous Indian Americans as well as their approval for the BJP premier. No other foreign leader except the Pope, it is said, has drawn such crowds in America
Share this on
Almost imperceptibly, the visiting Indian premier slipped into the role of a gracious host. He thanked Trump for coming to his event—a gesture, Modi said, that was testament to their two countries’ blossoming friendship. Pushing beyond good manners, he even appeared to give a ringing endorsement of Trump’s government; “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar!” For his part, Trump drew cheers from the crowd by promising to promote bilateral trade (in which case, he really should lessen his enthusiasm for tariffs). And he got an even bigger cheer when he promised to confront “radical Islamic terrorism”—a bogey that the two leaders have in common. Then Trump and the score of Republican and Democratic congressmen and -women who were also in attendance, took their seats to listen to Modi give a campaign speech of his own.
“Rural sanitation is at 99 per cent!” thundered Modi, “We are aiming high and achieving higher!” Such claims sounded somehow incongruous, in Texas’ fully sanitised boom city, but not nearly as strange as you might think. The crowd was too slavishly appreciative, the Indian premier too powerful a performer. Yet it was rather comical to see Trump and the other American politicos, apparently without translation devices, so trying to appear rapt for the cameras as Modi rattled off his achievements in Hindi. Someone should ask the president if he has any clue what a lakh is.
WHAT DID WE learn from this spectacle? Nothing new about Modi’s extremely enthusiastic following among Indian Americans, perhaps. That has been clear ever since his rock star appearance at Madison Square Garden in 2014—a few months after his election. Yet the fact that stadium crowds and Modi mania are now taken for granted whenever the Indian premier comes visiting is in itself remarkable; and a sign of the growing bullishness among prosperous Indian Americans as well as their approval for the BJP premier. No other foreign leader except the Pope, it is said, has drawn such crowds in America.
By extension we learnt that for Trump, and probably every presidential contender hereafter, Indian Americans are now too important a constituency to ignore. To be sure, Trump’s successors may do better at actually winning their votes than he will. The Republican’s efforts to tighten visa restrictions and his administration’s hammering of immigrants and generally xenophobic tone are unpopular among all migrant communities. There is no reason to think he will get much more Indian American support at next year’s election than he got in 2016. Yet wealthy Indian political donors and, in an election likely to be decided by small margins, clusters of Indian American votes in strategic places could represent a more achievable prize. Houston, which is home to 150,000 Indian Americans, is one such place, with the city’s suburbs increasingly turning from Republican red to Democratic blue. And indeed, the state of Texas may soon go the same way, given its shrinking White majority. In that case, both parties will try much harder to woo its quarter-of-a-million Indian Americans.
Trump’s interest in his Indian counterpart also goes beyond possible electoral advantage, however. He sees Modi’s belligerent nationalism as a match for and vindication of his own. And Trump therefore sees the Indian Prime Minister as a potential ally in the multinational fora he loathes. The fact that the Prime Minister’s visit was occasioned by the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week made this connection especially apparent. Trump suggested to Modi in New York that he should be known as the “Father of India”, which was both characteristic flattery (Modi should know that the president has said similarly nice things about Kim Jong Un) and also an effort to win Modi’s for the nationalist tirade he delivered at the UN that same day.
Trump sees Modi’s belligerent nationalism as a match for and vindication of his own. And Trump therefore sees the Indian Prime Minister as a potential ally in the multinational fora he loathes
Share this on
On a policy level, Trump likes to make approving comparisons between his Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment and Modi’s. “Both India and the US understand that to keep our communities safe, we must protect our borders,” he said. Pro-Trump conservative intellectuals (a description until recently considered oxymoronic) seized upon the association. The “Bharatiya Janata Party might be described as Trumpian—were it not for the fact that the BJP preceded Trump’s ‘America First’ movement by decades,” suggested a writer in the American Conservative—glossing the deep differences between Hindu nationalism, which is self-confident and popular as well as divisive, and Trump’s more resentful and unpopular ethno-nationalism.
A key question in all this was whether Trump’s expressions of love and kinship with India actually change anything much. The Trump administration has largely stuck to the policy of gradually but steadily expanding and deepening bilateral ties with India that it inherited from its two predecessors. Except, that is, where it has set back economic ties through its protectionism. In June, the administration stripped India of its former preferential trade terms after accusing it of denying American firms ‘equitable and reasonable market access’. India responded by applying tariffs to 28 sorts of American product, including almonds and apples. Though both sides seem confident that sufficient small compromises can be found to reach a partial accommodation—‘a pre-trade deal’—that would still amount to a more constrained trade relationship than the two countries enjoyed pre-Trump. And the barriers to a larger deal may be insurmountable—especially if Trump demands, as he has in the past, a reciprocal tariff regime, despite the fact that the average American income is eight times its Indian equivalent. That would of course be unfeasible, and probably immoral.
And yet there is one way in which the Trump administration has at times sounded more genuinely accommodating to India than its predecessors were. That is in its declared support for India’s right to hit back against cross-border terrorism. After Pakistan-tied militants murdered at least 40 police officers in Kashmir last February, for example, the administration waited for India to retaliate before issuing the customary public call for restraint. In tandem with Trump’s instinctive intolerance of Pakistani deceitfulness—regarding the country’s history of shady-dealings with the Taliban especially—some anticipated that Trump would herald a conclusive end to the rough parity American administrations used to struggle to reflect in their dealings with South Asia’s two nuclear-armed powers.
Such a terminal decoupling is one of Imran Khan’s big fears. The Pakistani prime minister was also in New York this week, primarily, he told me during an interview at his hotel suite, in an effort to lobby foreign governments to oppose Modi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir. “We are headed for a potential disaster of proportions that no one here realises,” he said. He predicted that Kashmiri resistance to the ongoing crackdown would lead to more violence, leading to potentially calamitous cross-border strikes. “And what happens when the curfew is lifted? I fear there will be a massacre and things will go out of control there and already they are blaming Pakistan,” he said glumly. “No two sane minds can think of a nuclear war. But is this a sane mind that has put 8 million people in an open jail? This is not sane.”
PAKISTAN HAS BEEN trying and dismally failing to re-internationalise the Kashmir issue for years—and to be fair to him, Khan seemed to know he is unlikely to change that. “Unfortunately, the material wins over the human,” he said bitterly. “[India has] trade, 1.3 billion people, a big market—so Modi knows nothing will happen, and he’s not bothered.” Yet this week did not pan all badly for the Pakistanis—especially in view of the Trump-Modi love fest with which it began. The threatened inflection point, at which America starts turning a deaf ear to Pakistan’s complaints, or leaves India to handle in its own way, has not yet come.
“No two sane minds can think of a nuclear war. But is this a sane mind that has put 8 million people in an open jail? This is not sane,” says Imran Khan, prime minister, Pakistan
Share this on
Following a successful visit to Washington by Khan in July, US-Pakistan relations have been moderately improved. Trump suggested he might be willing to unlock the $1.3 billion in aid to Pakistan that he froze early last year. The main reason for the thaw was America’s desire for Pakistani help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. And despite the apparent collapse of those talks this month, it appears Trump is in no hurry to return to antagonism with his country’s most trying ally. Always impressed by a handsome man, he may well be charmed by Khan. The Pakistani premier also claimed Trump is more open to resuming talks with the Taliban than he has said publicly. “He [is] willing to give it a chance… He is responsive. The good thing I get from President Trump is he is not pro-war.” Though he did not openly criticise Modi’s clampdown in Kashmir, as Khan would obviously have liked, Trump did formally raise the issue with Modi. Khan can chalk that up as a small victory.
As that illustrates, Trump ultimately did not give Modi quite the full-throated support the Prime Minister would have liked. Though plainly in good standing with the administration, his actions in Kashmir have worried it. “The administration seems to be concerned enough about the situation in Kashmir to mention it in a statement, but not concerned enough to let it affect broader US-India geopolitical and economic goals” is how Tanvi Madan of Brookings Institution characterises it. That is a more accurate reflection of the state of US-India relations than a Modi-Trump bear-hug. They are close and almost bound to get closer, but still governed by mutual wariness and some real differences.
Again, notwithstanding the strangeness of Trump’s and Modi’s quasi-endorsement of one another, the co-existence of a steadier bilateral footing reflects the relationship’s newfound stability. It would probably look broadly the same even under two different leaders in Washington and New Delhi—Hillary Clinton and Rahul Gandhi, for example. That in turn points to the distinctive place India has reserved for itself in American foreign policy, in an otherwise crazy time. Trump has denounced and insulted America’s oldest allies, threatened its enemies with war (or in the case of North Korea, undying love) and ignored vast swathes of the rest of the world. But when it comes to managing its relations with India, his administration appears to be pursing one of its few normal—in a good way—policies.