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The Houston Rally: Consolidating Indian Unity Beyond Borders

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India is rapidly ascending the staircase of global recognition and assertion that was due her position as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, one among the most diverse, religious and free societies, and, as a fount of the creative energy of the times. The recent address by PM Modi in Houston has added to this global recognition, which is important if India is to stand high as a source of inspiration for the rest of the world.

The Houston event was all about the expression of Indian nationalism on foreign soil amidst the Indian community living abroad. It consolidated not only the Indian-American community in a major way, but also opened up a new avenue for Indians living in India, as they saw first-hand the power of a consolidated Indian national identity.

There is little doubt that Indian diaspora in developed countries, like UK and USA, is amongst the most cultured, entrepreneurial and provides solid contributions to these countries. In general, the Indian diaspora is also more nationalistic than Indians brought up on the socialistic, secularist and self-deprecating education system within India. Indeed, it is surprising that non-BJP governments have not attempted to reach out to, and consolidate, this diaspora through nationalism.

When a 50,000-strong crowd of this powerful diaspora gathered together in one voice at the NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, it was a break from the past and a positive foundation for the future. The gathering was the largest ever gathering for a foreign leader on US soil. The gathering was impressive to the US politicians as well, massive by their standards also, as some of the Senators on the stage could be seen clicking photos of the sea of people in the stadium, and after the event, many of the Senators with families, separately clicked pictures with Modi and posted them online with warm messages.

It was also a first that a sitting US President had joined – along with American Senators – such a community gathering, to address a joint rally with a foreign leader. For PM Modi and Indians, the experience was more emphatic and powerful. Although in 2015, he had been joined by UK Prime Minister David Cameron at the Webley Stadium, while addressing a crowd of 60,000 British Indians, this time the intensity was stronger as was the fact that Trump jointly addressed the rally with Modi. This event was also highly political and nationalistic, instead of being merely a rousing community reception, accorded to a foreign leader.

In recent times, much like the powerful Jewish lobby in US, which has immensely benefitted US-Israel relationship, the Indian American lobby too is becoming powerful, due to its success in the American system. Currently, there are 4.6 million Indian origin people in US, with 2.6 million born in India. Indian-born people are the second largest immigrant group in the US, with many Indian Americans coming from South India (Kapur, 2019).

Despite the fact that they form less than 1% of the vote-share, their command over income and socio-economic resources is formidable, with nearly double the median household income compared to native-born and overall immigrant households, and constituting the richest and most successful ethnic group in the US. The fact that ‘The Texas India Forum’ was quickly able to mobilize $2.5 million for the event logistics, sent yet another signal about the political and economic heft of the community.

Politically, Indian origin people have had various appointments within the US government as well as Congress. Indeed, when in 1998, the Clinton administration was about to impose severe sanctions on India for conducting nuclear tests, the lobbying by this community helped to prevent the escalation of negativities between India and the US.

Till now, this powerful community has been heavily inclined to vote for the Democrats in US election, with roughly about 80% Indian Americans voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Presidential elections. It is clear that given their flourishing status, and, their representation in the US Congress, why Trump and Republicans would like to endear themselves to this community. They would also broaden Trump’s core white voter base.

The Indian American community, in turn, may no longer be that averse to supporting Trump, since there is a rising polarization in US politics. Despite the fact that they may bear economic costs due to Trump’s visa policy, many members of the community are tilting towards Republicans due to the Leftist and – in the garb of multiculturalism – an increasingly Islamist shift within the Democrats.

The fact that Democrats have also taken anti-India positions on a number of issues have not made them endearing, since Modi – more than the BJP also – is a favourite within this community. The nationalism within this community has also been higher. Since 2014, this has been meticulously taken to new heights by Modi.

People’s Nationalistic Consolidation and Wider Political Implications

Unlike the previous massive foreign addresses by PM Modi, what stood out about the Houston rally was the message of nationalism. Trump joining Modi to give his speech, not only showed a ringing endorsement of the approach of the Indian government by the US, but also indicated that US government is very much on the same page with regard to security issues.

Indeed, one of the most momentous instances came when Trump declared that India and US are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” This was met with a standing ovation from nearly the entire stadium as people took to their feet, cheering, with even the Indian delegation, led by Modi and Jaishankar, standing up and clapping.

Yet, another charged moment in the stadium came when Modi began to explain the abrogation of Article 370 and India’s fight against terrorists and separatists. Then with Trump sitting in the audience and listening, Modi took a swipe at Pakistan declaring that attackers of both 9/11 and 26/11 came from the same country, and that Pakistan alone had a problem with the abrogation of Article 370. This was met with even greater rousing cheers by the audience.

While the rest of the speeches of, both, Modi and Trump were usual, these two statements by the both the premiers animated the audience like no other. The overall tenor of the rally made it clear that it was a purely political exercise. Trump had different objectives in mind from it – particularly enhancing his own national appeal before the 2020 elections.

Modi had different objectives – to connect to and rally his core domestic and international Indian audience and to deliver a clear and sharp message about India’s role as an assertive power. Indeed, when Modi took the stage for the second time after Trump, he delivered his speech in Hindi.

The rally was also relevant politically as it put India firmly in the US’s corner. The first-ever spectacle of Modi and Trump together at Houston, including the obvious bonhomie between the leaders and diplomats of both the countries, sent out one message to the rest of the world viz. India will not turn against the US.

Modi’s endorsement of Trump was also quite open. His reference to ‘Ab ki Bar Trump Sarker’ was obviously misconstrued by the media, since he was referring to Trump’s 2016 election bid and how the slogan was raised then. But it clearly sounded like an endorsement, nonetheless. And regardless of whether it referred to 2016 elections, Modi mentioning the statement prior to the 2020 US elections seemed to declare that Modi is endorsing Trump – something that was completely wrong and could have been avoided.

Other than this, Modi did not leave any stone unturned to woo Trump. Multiple times, Modi asked the cheering crowd to give a standing ovation to Trump and he himself heaped praises on Trump. What could be the reason?

This may be because of Trump’s truly American utilitarianism and desire for bare talk and results instead of diplomacy. Going by the Trump playbook and striking a personal chord goes a long way in at least creating a congenial atmosphere, even if nothing gets achieved on the policy front. Foreign policy is highly personalized under Trump. Examples abound in the form of Trump’s to-and-fro on China trade issues, the unexpected personal rapprochement with North Korea, and, the soft corner for Putin despite being at odds with US establishment. He was willing to reconcile with Iran also if he had got his nuclear ‘deal’.

India has not been able to offer Trump multi-billion dollar defence deals, like Saudi Arabia. Trump is the only US President to not have visited India during his Presidency, including cunningly turning down the Republic Day invite. He comes across as calculative, utilitarian and transactional. India realized this half-way through his Presidency. Therefore, the Indian approach to US, under Trump, has to be as unique as Trump himself.

India has to not only manage a difficult US administration that is hell-bent on destroying India’s trade interests and hell-bent on making Indian working professionals suffer due to its approach towards visa, but has to manage these things by constantly pampering Trump’s ego, which many of the world leaders have started doing, to some extent. Those who did not do it found themselves humiliated unnecessarily, like Germany and France and Japan, even if they were allies.

Since Trump is so utilitarian, the prospect of getting the backing of the wealthy Indian Americans – who have been Democrat voters traditionally – for 2020 elections is something that he sees as useful. India made sure – through the Houston event – that Modi was seen as endearing Trump to this community.

These considerations as well as the overall spectacular optics and success of the Houston event have contributed a warmth and positivity to India-US relations which cannot be filled up simply through transactional deals. Especially since there is very little on which we agree with the US – trade, human rights areas, and, ties with other nations. There needs to be a deeper connection, especially at the level of a people who hold such immense sway in the US system, to take ties beyond mere calculations.

Especially, in the coming years, with demographic changes, as the white population will get overtaken by non-whites, it is bound to affect existing political lobbies. Through these changes, Indians based in US will play an important role. It will never do for India to remain cut-off from this budding community, as the non-BJP governments have done. Indeed, it was only after 1999, with BJP in power, that Indian diaspora began to be given policy attention in India. Otherwise, the socialist and secularist coalitions of the past have been narrow-minded and mechanical about such soft power aspects of foreign policy.

The self-deprecation, needless guilt and need for constant justification of our actions has always characterized our foreign policy. Modi has put a halt to this guilt syndrome and provided a vision for a confident and resurgent India, rather than a self-deprecating one, pandering to the recriminations and lectures of intellectuals and human rights brigade.

 

Bibliography

Kapur, D. (2019, September 29). The Washington Post. Retrieved from

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/29/prime-minister-modi-india-donald-trump-addressed-huge-houston-rally-who-was-signaling-what/

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