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Donald Trump & Narendra Modi at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas
Donald Trump & Narendra Modi at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas
Write-In

Trump At His Unpredictable Best

India nervously watched the volatile US President but he put on his best show, thanks to elections round the corner

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone down in history as the only foreign leader to have greeted his diaspora in the United States in the company of the US President.

Not even Benjamin Netanyahu and Xi Jin Ping have been given that honour, though the Jews and the Chinese communities are equally influential, if not more.

In India, where the population is divided not as the government and opposition, but as pro-Modi and anti-Modi, both sides were banking on Trump’s legendary unpredictability to make or mar the event.

But the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston was a great success as Trump was unpredictably friendly to PM Modi in a demonstrable way. His appearance was not just symbolic. He spent more than an hour and sat through PM Modi’s speech.

From “estranged democracies” and “engaged democracies,” India and the US have become “embraced democracies’ overnight. The proverbial roller coaster of India-US relations has reached its zenith at a historic summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, witnessed by the world. The challenge before the two countries is to turn the peak into a plateau and enter an irreversible phase of cooperation.

President Trump’s unpredictability was a grave concern. Mercifully, his tweets before the event were comforting, but there was many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Preoccupied as he was about mediation over Kashmir, he could have upset the apple cart if he had mentioned the issue even in a guarded manner. As it happened, it was PM Modi, who mentioned Kashmir and Article 370 and criticised “some people” who could not run their own country opposing the change. He got a standing ovation over the abrogation of Article 370.

President Trump, however, returned to the mediation issue at his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, stating that he is close to India and Pakistan and he is a good mediator.

But he made it clear that he will mediate only if both the sides agree to it. The only surprise was that he mildly criticised the PM for being “aggressive on the Kashmir issue” in a statement after he met Khan.

The President struck the right note on terrorism by mentioning the opposition to “radical Islamic terrorism” and the right of countries to defend their borders.

“We have to secure our borders and free the world of radical Islamic terrorism,” he said.

Moreover, President Trump gave a free hand to India to fight terrorism when he said in New York that India is quite capable of fighting Pakistani terrorism.

One other fear was that PM Modi might go overboard in praising President Trump and offend the Democrats, who have more supporters in the Indian community. This actually happened, particularly when he endorsed Trump’s slogan, “Ab ki bar Trump sarkar”.

This is for the first time that an Indian Prime Minister endorses a candidate for US president, obviously the price he had to pay for the extraordinary backing he received from the President.

PM Modi’s statement was a complete reversal of his own equation with former President Barack Obama and the Democratic leaders. Now India has a major stake in President Trump’s victory in the next elections, which are wide open.

The allegations about foreign intervention in US elections is still a live issue and there may be criticism that India tried to manipulate US citizens to vote in a particular manner.

The unofficial “trade war” between India and the US could have made or marred the summit. But the subtle way in which the President Trump played the issue was a great relief. He hinted at the possibility of the trade imbalance being corrected by a large contract being negotiated by Petronet to import 5 million tons of LNG per year and many new defense deals, in addition to the existing contracts amounting to USD 18 billion.

He also linked defense exports to India’s security and announced the forthcoming joint exercise named “Tiger Triumph.”

Subsequently, after a meeting in New York, President Trump indicated that a trade deal with India would be announced shortly.

In other words, the urgency of resolving the trade dispute has become less urgent and the US may be willing to wait for a gradual correction in the trade imbalance. Indian imports from the US will increase substantially on these deals, not to speak of many other new trade opportunities, which are being discussed.

Moreover, “India has never invested in the US as it is doing it today and it is reciprocal. We are doing the same in India,” the President said.

The Indian immigrants, who constituted the bulk of the audience were looking for a way out of the tough immigration policy through the new bonhomie between the President and the Prime Minister.

No American President can give an assurance that immigration will be liberalised in the present context. But he introduced a distinction between different kinds of immigrants by saying that Indian immigrants have made a great impact on the US economy.

He made it clear that talented Indians will be welcome. He said that America was proud of Indian Americans and would protect them and fight for them every day.

He said clearly that it is the illegal immigrants that he was against, as he would like the tax -paying, responsible and loyal immigrants to get the benefits of the prosperity of the nation.

PM Modi made use of the opportunity, as he always does, to showcase Indian achievements for the benefit not only of the President, but also the Indian community, which should be aware of reports about economic downturn in India and some divisive moves by the government.

In reply to the greeting, “Howdy, Modi,” he answered on behalf of all the people of India, “Everything is fine” in several Indian languages, adding that the different languages in India are an integral part of democracy and they exist in perfect harmony.

One remaining anxiety will be that India’s embrace of the United States will have international repercussions, especially in China and Russia. This is an aspect that PM Modi had realised in 2016, which led him to reset relations with the US, China and Russia.

His meeting with Vladimir Putin has already laid the foundations for building confidence with Russia and he may do the same when President Xi of China visits India shortly.

The Houston rally and the subsequent talks in New York opened a new chapter in India-US relations, returning to the new symphony that PM Modi announced in Washington in 2016.

The unpredictability of President Trump, which had unsettled the relationship has now worked in India’s favour. But it is not beyond President Trump to reverse the trend by a mere tweet.

(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)

(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)