Modi's US engagements not only overshadowed Pakistan PM Imran Khan's visit to the US but also boosted Modi's credentials as a world statesman.
Dominating the state like a rock star, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a complex mix of stagecraft and diplomacy at the "Howdy, Modi!" event in Houston in US and culminated his a week-long trip to America with an address to the General Assembly of the UN that showcased the aspirations of a south Asian power which aspires to fight global terror and raise the quality of life of its people by several notches.
By avoiding Kashmir issue or Pakistan in his address at the UNGA and giving a global overview on his vision to fight terror, Modi left an indelible mark as a world leader who has plans beyond his own country and is committed to counter the menace at the international stage. His address focused on India's efforts to counter global warming by optimising use of solar energy and the war against single-use plastic, sending a strong message that the country is concerned about the well-being of not just its own people but of the entire world.
Trump added heft to Modi's stature by calling him 'Father of India' who brought a torn India together. On fight against terror, the US president gave a thumbs up to Modi when asked what message he wanted to give to Pakistan and said, “The message is not for me to give... it is for PM Modi to give, and he gave it loud and clear. I am sure he will be able to handle it.”
“Howdy Modi”, no doubt, was the highpoint of Modi's US trip and set the tone for resetting the Indo-US relationship. The event revived memories of the 2014 appearance of Modi at the Global Citizen Fest in New York's Central Park with Hugh Jackman where Modi talked of the Swachch Bharat plan.
All through his week-long engagements, which also included Modi's address at the Climate Action Summit hosted by UN Secretary General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres, the Indian PM focused over praising Trump, showcasing the soft power of Indian and NRIs and highlighting steps taken by his government for promoting trade ties with the US and undo the bitterness emanating from Trump's move to once call India “tariff king”.
During his whirlwind trip, Modi was also awarded the “Global Goalkeepers Award” at Lincoln Centre by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for leadership in the field of sanitation through Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. He also highlighted the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme at another event. Modi also co-chaired the India-CARICOM meet with 14 Caribbean leaders. He chaired the Bloomberg Business forum followed by a conversation with Bloomberg in a bid to win foreign capital in the backdrop of the landmark fiscal move of lowering corporate tax rates in India.
In Houston and at other public felicitations by NRIs, Modi leveraged Indian diaspora and demonstrated to Trump how a happy and cared-for NRI community can yield rich dividend for him in November 3, 2020 US presidential poll.
As Trump and over 20 US lawmakers turned up in Houston, Modi used the opportunity to fire a shot from the stage at Pakistan, without naming it, by mentioning that the world knew where the planners of both the 9/11 and 26/11 terror attacks were hosted. The symbolism was conspicuous as the two world leaders talked of global terror, especially, at a time when Pakistan has been trying hard to garner international support to question New Delhi's decision to remove Article 370 and the related special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
The US has broadly supported the Indian move on J&K but also sounded an alarm over the clampdown in the Valley. While Modi was in the US, Trump even showed signs of a soft corner for Imran by saying that he was ready to mediate between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue if both the sides agree to it. Trump offered this while describing himself as "an extremely good arbitrator" and saying that he has faith in Imran.
Cracks developed within the Congress over Modi's mega show in Houston. Senior leader Anand Sharma called the show a “political rally” by Modi in favour of Trump and labelled it as a breach of the sovereign policy of India of not interfering in any country's election. He was referring to Modi's remark, “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar”, an American version of the Gujarati stalwart's own popular election slogan aimed at endorsing Trump's Presidential campaign and nudging NRIs to vote for Trump's re-election. The purpose was all too visible: Give a lift to Trump's political fortunes.
In contrast to Sharma's critical view of Modi's outing, young Congress leader from Maharashtra Milind Deora praised the "Howdy, Modi!" event in Houston. His tweet won him a "thank you" tweet from Modi, but his party leaders fumed over his appreciation for the Prime Minister.
Deora had called PM Modi's speech in the presence of Trump as a "momentous first for India's soft power diplomacy". He had also said that his friends in the US "acknowledge India's leadership in the 21st century”. “PM Modi's Houston address was a momentous first for India's soft power diplomacy. My father Murlibhai (former minister Murli Deora) was one of the early architects of deeper Indo-US ties. Donald Trump's hospitality and recognition of Indian-Americans' contributions makes us proud," tweeted Milind, the young former chief of Mumbai Congress.
Some Congress leaders also pointed to Trump's U-turn and pro-Pakistan stance within days of the Houston show when during a meeting with Imran he made his “third” offer to mediate on the thorny issues if the two neighbours so desired. The Congress said that at a time when the Indian diplomatic corp was celebrating the success of the Modi blitzkrieg, Trump showed signs of lending an ear to Imran on the Kashmir issue and repeated his offer to negotiate on the matter.
However, Deora's remarks reflect the feelings of the 2 million strong Indian-American community which is now presuming that it will get greater importance in the US political arena. Also, the NRIs realise that better ties between Modi and Trump mean that the Indian community will be get special attention and respect from the US administration and policy makers.
Trump is also a big gainer from the warmth shown by Indian-Americans at Houston as he realises that only about 15% of NRIs voted for him in the last US elections. He did not hide his joy in joining Modi at Houston and undertook a virtual a victory lap in the Houston stadium, only to sum up his experience with a remark: “The USA Loves India.”
But, undeniably, the US visit of Modi was a diplomatic and political win for him and his team of strategists and demonstrated the Prime Minister's appetite for risk-taking, considering that the US and India are still to think alike on key issues like the WTO, climate change and Indian relations with Iran and Russia .
All through the week-long Modi visit, it was a smooth transition from one key agenda to the other as the Indian PM stepped up the terror rhetoric and cornered Pakistan on terrorism and swiftly moved towards a mini-trade deal with the US with India looking to lower tariff on Indian items like electronics, health equipment, food items like pork, cherry, apple, almonds and pistachios in exchange for the restoration of the special trade status for India under the Generalized System of Preferences.
Another big takeaway from the bonhomie between Modi and Trump was their commitment to values like democracy and rule-based world order and their broad unanimity on standing together in the crucial global dominance fight against China. India is the largest democracy and the US is the richest nation in the world and both realise that they cannot take on China's might on their own separately. So, their mission is to unite in their global pursuit of countering China whose GDP is five times the Indian economy and is 4-times more populous than the US. Despite the trade irritants, India and the US have stuck together to focus on the larger picture of meeting their economic and strategic goals together and countering the growing influence of China.
As amply displayed during his visit, Modi appears to have developed a knack for reading Trump's mind on trade issues and offering him concessions, at the same time, convincing him to be mindful of India's concerns on issues like Kashmir mediation or defence purchase from Russia that carries the threat of sanctions on India under the shadow of the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
The outcomes of Modi's US visit shine light, decidedly positive, on his growing stature. Modi is a living example of a success story written in the American sub-continent. Within six years of being named as a PM candidate in India, he has emerged as a big brand. From being someone banned from travelling to the US under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provision of US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), he has now shared the stage with Trump for a tango that has caught millions of eye-balls.
The credit of the razzmatazz on American soil goes to the Modi government as it has shored up India's image at the global stage as a meaningful player and contained the negative coverage in media on India that was casting a shadow over deepening of ties between New Delhi and Washington DC. The PM has also been successful in earning Trump's trust and nurturing the US as a key global supporter for a rising India. The take away from Modi's triumphant visit to the US is the beginning of a journey for trying to attract global attention towards India. In the future, the country's effort should be on retaining the essence of “Howdy Modi” and inviting the entire world to enthusiastically join the chorus of “Howdy India”.