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Modi and Trump score from Howdy Modi, but what’s in it for India?

For Trump, Howdy Modi was a golden opportunity to woo a vital segment of American voters.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Sep 23, 2019, 05.24 PM IST
That a US president would attend a function far away from the US Capital and sit through several hours of ceremony and speechmaking he could barely understand, is an achievement other developing country leaders would struggle to achieve.
With characteristic flair and panache, Prime Minister Narendra Modi parlayed his personal popularity among, and the growing political clout of, the Indian American community, one of the highest achieving and prosperous minorities in the US, to obtain high-profile endorsement from the President Trump. And through this feat of making the leader of the most powerful nation of the world pay him and India rich tributes in front of adoring crowds, Modi used the Howdy Modi event at Houston to further reinforce his nationalist and leadership credentials in the eyes of the ordinary Indian.

For President Trump, whose campaign for re-election in 2020 is already in full swing, Howdy Modi was a golden opportunity to woo a vital segment of American voters, the vast majority of whom had voted his Democratic opponent the last time around. The crowd was assembled for him, in numbers that normally elude physical political assemblies in America, at no cost to his campaign, in a state whose traditional Republican leanings had weakened in the 2018 mid-term elections. Trump had every reason to make good use of that opportunity and hope to convert Modi’s popularity among the Indian American community into support for himself, by paying handsome tribute to India and its leader.

The cynic might well ask, what has been the gain for India from this event, the garnishing of their appeal among domestic voters for Trump and Modi apart? It had been hoped that Trump would make some major announcement relating to India at the event. As it happened, Trump announced that India would get its first basket ball match, because America’s National Basket Ball Association has set up shop in India. Extending NBA’s reach to the world’ second most populous nation is good for NBA, no doubt. But India already has basket ball. In any case, Trump can be excused for not knowing that the game of basket ball was invented in ancient India, along with flying machines, as that kind of recondite knowledge is reserved for experts of the Sangh Parivar.

Petronet LNG, India’s liquefied natural gas company, is investing $2.5 billion in the US. This benefits the US more than it benefits India. Sure, India needs more natural gas. But the US is too far away for the gas to be economical when it reaches India, bearing the cost of freight. A more sensible option is for Europe to shift some of its gas sourcing to the US from the Middle East, and for India to import the freed-up gas. Arranging this switch calls for commercial nous, not investment in the US. An Indian public sector enterprise will raise funds for additional investment in US gas production at a cost higher than what an established American oil major or even a shale company would manage. Petronet LNG only needed to enter into commercial contracts. But that would not have allowed Trump to praise India as a nation with expansive investment in the US.

The event was full of disingenuous boasts, as Modi appropriated all the advances in governance derived from Aadhaar and India Stack, which he had vehemently opposed as chief minister of Gujarat, when the UPA government launched Aadhaar and direct benefit transfer. The APIs that make up India Stack and the National Payments Corporation of India, set up in 2008, together form the basis for the digital payments revolution that India is witnessing today. Modi even claimed credit for the faster issuance of passports, although the outsourcing of passport processing to Information Technology major TCS commenced towards the fag end of the post-Independence darge age Modi and his fans refer to as the last six decades of zero progress.

But that is standard fare for any politician, claiming credit for whaterver he can get away with. To his credit, Modi has made good use of Aadhaar for financial inclusion and stemming leakage of government benefits to the undeserving, fast-forwarded the toilet building scheme, extended cooking gas connections to millions of Indians who were conditioned to seeing such modern conveniences as things beyond their reach. These are substantial achievements. But Modi scores even more on his projection of leadership. After all, a large and willing Indian American audience was potentially available to previous prime ministers also. But it took Modi to convert that opportunity into a factor of diplomatic leverage and of domestic political appeal.

That a US president would attend a function far away from the US Capital and sit through several hours of ceremony and speechmaking he could barely understand, whatever the quality of the simultaneous interpretation that, no doubt, was available, is an achievement other developing country leaders would struggle to achieve. This, as Modi keeps repeating, out of undoubted humility, is on account of India, and not Modi the person. But it did take Modi’s initiative for it to happen.

What India has gained is indirect discrediting of Pakistan’s attempt to stay hyphenated with India, via President Trump’s condemnation of Islamic terror, and praise for India overall. India’s global profile goes up, it puts Pakistan far behind in the global league table of political relevance and opens up new commercial possibilities. These can enrich India, provided, Modi can also make the Indian economy, distinct from the stock market, regain steam.

Also Read

Why Trump came to Houston to Howdy Modi

Trump at ‘Howdy, Modi’: Indian-American imprint

'Howdy, Modi!' organised, funded by US-based volunteers, not party or government: BJP

'Howdy, Modi!' triumphant moment for Indo-US ties: USISPF

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