In Texas, Trump Hitches His Wagon to Modi’s Star

Why the U.S. president is befriending the beleaguered prime minister.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace while delivering joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 26, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace while delivering joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 26, 2017. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump will take part in one of the largest rallies he’s been part of since becoming president. But he won’t be the main event. That would be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to speak in front of nearly 50,000 adoring Indian Americans and nonresident Indians in Houston as part of a massive rally and cultural celebration entitled “Howdy Modi.”

The U.S. president’s cameo as sidekick to a foreign leader is telling for two reasons. It speaks to the leaps and bounds that the United States and India have made in their bilateral relationship over the past two decades. And it is also a reflection of today’s chaotic geopolitical moment: Trump is embracing Modi at a time when the Indian leader is facing widespread international criticism for his Kashmir policy.

On Aug. 5, India announced that it was terminating the special autonomy of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is part of the larger Kashmir region that China, India, and Pakistan each have some claims over. India’s decision shocked the world, but the manner in which it was carried out proved doubly problematic. New Delhi instituted a total lockdown in Kashmir, pouring in thousands more troops, shutting down telecommunications and Internet access, and putting politicians under house arrest. In the weeks since, India has detained a few thousand civilians, and, this Monday, it even arrested an 81-year-old sitting member of Parliament and former chief minister of the state.

The reaction from the international press and human-rights community has been scathing. The diplomatic response has been less so, with many countries, including the United States, expressing concern but stopping short of condemnation. In most cases, countries have instead chosen to preach calm and urge both India and Pakistan to resolve the issue peacefully. In August, the United Nations Security Council held a private meeting on the topic (a first in decades), but it failed to issue a consensus statement. Nevertheless, this is the first time, perhaps since India tested nuclear weapons in the late 1990s, that New Delhi has drawn so much negative international scrutiny.

Trump’s decision to go to Texas and appear with Modi at this time is thus striking. It could be mistaken as a tacit endorsement of India’s actions, or at least an acknowledgement by the White House that it doesn’t much care about the controversy. Trump’s appearance also functions as a blunt dismissal of the campaign by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who will also be in the United States next week, to mobilize diplomatic pressure against India.

Trump’s decision to hitch himself to Modi says a lot about world affairs today.

First and foremost, Trump’s decision is a testament to the health of the bilateral U.S.-Indian relationship, which has become stronger under three successive U.S. presidents. U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to sign a nuclear energy deal with India created a foundation for a partnership with a country that was quickly emerging as an economic power. U.S. President Barack Obama elevated the relationship to a strategic partnership, recognizing India’s potential to support U.S. interests through its growing economic heft and diplomatic clout. Trump, despite some backtracking on U.S.-Indian trade ties, has accelerated bilateral security cooperation and turned New Delhi into a key defense partner. Trump’s appearance at the Modi rally reinforces the importance both countries now place on the relationship.

But under the current circumstances, Trump’s embrace of Modi is also indicative of the shifts taking place in the international system. In 2000, India was the 13th-largest economy in the world; today it is set to overtake the United Kingdom as the fifth-largest. During this time India has catapulted up the ranks of global powers. Trump’s decision, and the insipid response by foreign capitals to India’s actions in Kashmir, are products of that. India has, especially under Modi, devoted tremendous diplomatic capital to strengthen ties with major powers around the world. That effort is clearly paying off.

Recent developments also reveal an evolution in the United States, which played a far different role in previous crises involving India and Pakistan. In 1999, 2002, and 2008, the United States was a critical back channel for managing crises on the subcontinent related to terrorism and Kashmir. U.S. President Bill Clinton punished India with sanctions for atomic tests in 1998 and intervened personally during the India-Pakistan Kargil War in 1999. Similarly, during India’s standoff with Pakistan from 2001 to 2002 and after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the George W. Bush administration actively engaged both countries to end their tense standoff and prevent a conflict.

Today, the United States seems content to be left out. Although Trump has indicated that he is open to mediating between India and Pakistan, India has rejected that idea and the White House has happily retreated to the sidelines. Although the value and wisdom of the United States getting involved is certainly open for debate, it is difficult to ignore the marked difference in how the United States handles international crises these days.

Whether it be tensions between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, or the prospect of another confrontation on the Indian subcontinent, countries seem increasingly willing to test convention and upset the status quo because they sense that the United States is no longer as vigilant as it once was about maintaining the existing order. This is a radical shift in world affairs.

Another change, one that the current Kashmir crisis also highlights, has been an American silence, at least from the White House, on issues related to the protection of democratic ideals and human rights. Former President Barack Obama invested plenty of time and effort to improve relations with India and befriend Modi himself. Yet in 2015, he publicly chastised India over incidents of religious intolerance. That is unimaginable today. The White House has dropped the defense of democratic values as a priority, relinquishing the United States’ long-standing leadership role and essential voice on this critical front. India’s willingness to implement its draconian actions in Kashmir—and the Trump administration’s general silence about them—can be seen as a product of that.

The Trump-Modi bonhomie is also a product of another trend in world politics: the rise of nationalism, anti-elitism, and majoritarianism. Both leaders are ardent champions of these sentiments and benefit politically from them. Trump’s attempts to stigmatize journalists, Muslims, and immigrants can be seen in the same light as Modi and his party fueling and utilizing Islamophobia and anti-elitism in India. That strategy is evident not just in Kashmir, but also in Modi’s electoral campaigns, as well as his government’s attempts to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill earlier this year that excluded Muslim immigrants from the right to expedited naturalization. In some ways, Trump and Modi are cut from the same political cloth.

Finally, there is an even simpler reason Trump will be next to Modi in Texas. With the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign creeping closer, there are growing rumors that the Lone Star State and its 38 electoral votes could be up for grabs for Democrats for the first time in decades. Trump is hoping that by appearing next to Modi, who is beloved among Indian Americans, he can make inroads with a small but wealthy minority community that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump knows that, despite all the negative coverage Modi has received over the past month, when it comes to the only audience that matters—the American voter—he has more to gain by saying “howdy Modi.”

Anubhav Gupta is an associate director with the Asia Society Policy Institute. The views here are his own. Twitter: @AndyGupta21

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