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24 September, 2019

Modi begins US visit with a PR victory

BRP Bhaskar

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

The United States figures high up in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheme of things for more than one reason. Many Indian prime ministers began their term with a visit to the US with a view to improving bilateral relations which have been uneasy since the days of Non-alignment.

An early cold-war era Secretary of State had called Non-alignment immoral. For Modi there was a very personal reason too. Years ago he had spent some time in the US, without attracting much attention, cultivating the rising Indian American community as a representative of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party.  Today the RSS and its associates are the Indian NGOs that get the largest remittances from the US.

After Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat and attracted widespread criticism for the anti-Muslim riots that rocked the state, the US refused him a visa. His 2014 visit as the Prime Minister was thus as much an occasion to live down a disrepute as one to work out a personal equation with the US leadership.

He quickly made friends with President Barack Obama and was reputedly on first-name terms with him. Public relations experts of the two sides, working in tandem, pulled off a media coup and an op-ed under the joint byline of Barak Obama and Narendra Modi in a leading US newspaper.

A highlight of that visit was a widely publicised rally at New York’s Madison Square where the Indian community gave him a tumultuous welcome. That set the pace for a new phase in Indo-American relations.

Then came Donald Trump with whom Modi could relate more easily than with Obama. Apart from planned bilateral meetings the two had several opportunities to interact on the sidelines of multilateral meetings.

Trump and Modi have been eager to raise the level of Indo-US strategic partnership to a new high. To give New Delhi a feeling that it has a high stake in its Asia Pacific pivot, Washington renamed the region Indo-Pacific. Modi has taken India closer to the US than ever before. But inherent clashes of interest and historical baggage have prevented the two leaders from moving as fast as they would like to.

Recently a new hurdle came up in the form of a trade dispute. Officials burnt midnight oil to put it out of the way before Modi landed in the US. But it is not clear to what extent they succeeded.

Since the Madison Square rally, spectacular Indian diaspora events have been a feature of Modi’s foreign travels. Visuals of the events transmitted home are used to boost his image.

The Modi team planned for an audience of 50,000 Indians at the Houston event, named Howdy Modi. Trump’s presence enhanced its publicity value for Modi. Some foreign media reports said Trump played second fiddle to Modi at the event.

For Trump, who is to seek re-election next year it provided an opportunity to appeal directly to the estimated 4.4 million people of Indian origin in the US. Modi and Trump, in their speeches, conveyed the impression that on the issue of terrorism they are on the same page. That there has been a convergence of their ideas on the issue in the recent past is not in doubt but it is too early to proclaim an identity of interests. 

While the event was on in Houston, in that city as well as several others there were protests by groups concerned over the unprecedented human rights violations in Kashmir. The media brouhaha over the Houston show enabled it to draw more public attention than the three major events at the United Nations which are what brought the Prime Minister to the US for a week.

Apart from the annual UN General Assembly session, he is due to attend the Climate Action Summit and the Universal Healthcare meet, both convened by the UN Secretary General.

Some reports have put the cost of the Houston extravaganza at Rs 1,400 billion. This huge investment brings no tangible benefit to either India or the US, unless the political dividends that will flow to Modi and Trump are treated as national gains.

Writing on India’s warped priorities, the Washington Post observed that Modi, who admires the achievements of Indian Americans, has failed to grasp the basis of their success. It said they have thrived in America because it encourages free enterprise, embraces diversity and has a meritocratic culture. Under Modi, India had regressed on all three fronts, it added. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 24, 2019.

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