The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, Texas, this weekend is a big deal. Having packed the city’s NRG stadium with a sell-out crowd of over 50,000, the event’s organisers claim that it is the largest-ever turnout for a foreign elected leader on the US soil. Apparently, only the Pope — an unelected foreign leader — attracted a bigger crowd. The Texas event will be more than twice as large as Modi’s previous one at New York’s Madison Square Garden. To top it all, Donald Trump will also join the show.
There is no mistaking the fact that spectacular rallies of this kind meld international diplomacy, domestic politics and political entertainment. While I have studiously avoided analysing US politics, an astute colleague tells me that staging the event in Houston is “a pretty smart move, as Texas will be a swing state in the 2020 presidential election, and Modi can show Trump that with his leverage on Indian-American votes, we can impact his re-election a bit”.
So yes, Trump’s presence at Howdy Modi certainly highlights the strength and the comfort of the India-US relationship. It also provides a very visible demonstration of the Indian-American community’s political clout in both the United States and India. And of course, it serves the partisan and personal interests of both Modi and Trump.
The point that must not be crossed
There is no doubt that the political influence of the Indian-American community is growing.
One aspect of it is the rise of American politicians and public officials of Indian descent, in increasingly influential roles in the United States. This is unexceptionable and consistent with both the American value system — which is normatively agnostic to ethnic origins — as well as India’s own longstanding posture towards the overseas community.
Since Independence, the Indian state encouraged ethnic Indians around the world to be loyal citizens of their respective countries, and maintained that their links to India were cultural and civilisational, not political. This meant ethnic Indians could become heads of state and chiefs of sensitive state organs like the armed forces, police and intelligence, without raising any questions about divided loyalties.
That’s where the second aspect of Indian-American politics — concerning the nationals of one country involving themselves in the domestic politics of the other — can become controversial. Democracies accept foreigners’ influence in domestic politics, up to a point. Once you cross that point, there will be suspicion, resentment and backlash.
For instance, the push back against Chinese attempts to influence politics in Western countries has been to the detriment of citizens of Chinese descent. Australia has cracked down on foreign influence, targeting both Chinese nationals as well as Chinese-Australians suspected of acting on behalf of Beijing.
In the United States, after the mood turned against China on trade and security, Chinese-Americans are feeling the heat. According to a recent survey commissioned by The Guardian, “slightly less than half (48.4 per cent) of respondents working for software and internet companies either predicted problems or said they were already happening. Across all industries, Chinese nationals had the highest rates of concern (66.7 per cent), while Chinese Americans and those of other East Asian ethnicities (approximately 48 per cent) were slightly more concerned than those who said they were not Chinese or East Asian (43 per cent).”
Chinese nationals, who enjoyed access to academia, industry and politics in the United States for over three decades, now find themselves increasingly unwelcome, if not targeted. So too is the situation of Turkish immigrants in Germany and other parts of Europe.
If geopolitical winds change direction, immigrant communities can find themselves isolated and targeted. Those suspected of dual loyalties, or worse, being a fifth column, will suffer even more. States have no permanent friends or enemies, and as the US attitude towards China shows, winds can change direction pretty fast.
Jewish-American influence in US politics
On the other end of the spectrum is the Jewish-American community and its influence over Washington. Leaders of the Indian overseas community hold up the Jewish community as an example they can emulate. While there are many parallels between the Jewish-American and the Indian-American political communities, there are also important differences, among them religious convergences, shared 20th century history and dual citizenship.
What might be a crucial factor in the political influence of the Jewish-American community is the fact that Israel is a military ally of the United States. India, on the other hand, is not. So, it will be difficult to achieve the Jewish-American level of political influence without a concomitant – and unlikely – geopolitical alliance between India and the United States.
In the amoral world of international relations, it is par for the course for states to influence the politics and policies of other countries. A realist does not ask if the instruments are good or bad, but whether they are effective or not. If the Modi government believes mobilising the overseas community allows India to promote its interests in the United States, then the only question that matters is whether it is effective or not. Both the Modi government and the Indian-American community must be aware of the risks and tread carefully. A lot depends on how the prevalent nationalist “America First” political sentiment in the United States perceives the Howdy Modi rally.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.