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Massive crowd at Howdy Modi event in US is a sign of thriving Indian nationalism overseas

The symbolism of US President Trump walking hand in hand with Modi at the end of Houston rally is a victory for PM and his administration.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to the Indian-Americans at Sunday’s event in Houston, his third such address in the United States, reflected his effort to solidify the India-US partnership. President Donald Trump addressed the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in the presence of over a dozen American congressmen and women, along with senior officials, governors and state legislators.

The symbolism of an American president walking hand in hand with an Indian Prime Minister at the end of a rally is a victory for Prime Minister Modi and his administration. At the end of the day, however, the strength of a relationship between any two countries is gauged by its underlying economic and strategic bonds.

Shared principles

At the heart of the India-US relationship has been ties between the two countries’ people, something that kept the relationship alive even when there was little to no strategic or military ties and limited economic bonds. This relationship between the oldest and the largest democracy has also been built on the American belief that India is a fellow secular, open and pluralist democracy. On the eve of the 150th birth anniversary of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, it is important to remember the number of American leaders and presidents who have been influenced by Gandhi.

On Sunday, both President Trump and Democratic House Majority Leader, Congressman Steny Hoyer, spoke of how Indians and Americans share common values, “similar principles,” about how both countries’ constitutions begin with the same three words “we the people”, and that India is a trusted partner and “most valued” friend of the US. In his speech, Modi too referred to India’s unity in diversity as being the country’s unique quality and emphasised the presence of a vibrant democracy as its core strength.

Also read: Ab ki baar Trump sarkar: Modi knows the key to winning in India is winning overseas Indians

Support from Indians abroad

In the last five years, PM Modi has made Indian-origin people settled broad a key part of his foreign policy interactions: seek their support both within their country of residence as well as ask them to help with India’s economic growth through investment, tourism and trade. The Houston rally of 50,000 Indian Americans reflects the pull of Indian nationalism: it is rare for foreign leaders to go to another country and hold a rally with their own people there, but it appears natural for an Indian leader to do so.

In his speech, President Trump praised the four million-strong Indian-American community and referenced the deep economic and security partnership between the two countries. Trump also referred to himself as the ‘best friend’ India could ever have and referred to Modi as the “most devoted and loyal friend” of the US.

Also read: India Inc earnings seen jumping 10% after Nirmala Sitharaman’s tax cut

The economic angle

The primary emphasis of PM Modi’s speech was to emphasise the domestic reforms his government has accomplished to date — from welfare schemes to those on the economic front — and even a reference to the recent revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir. On the economic front, PM Modi projected India as an investment friendly destination, speaking of the lowering of corporate tax rates, easing of rules for the entry of foreign direct investment (FDI) into India including in single brand retail. He also mentioned that his government planned on investing $1.4 trillion in infrastructure reforms.

While there was no announcement of a trade deal – not even a ‘mini’ trade deal that had been referenced in the media – it appeared that there was a deliberate effort to avoid references to any areas of tension. Modi joked about President Trump referring to him as a tough negotiator and praised the latter as being a great one himself; Trump too did not once refer to the areas of friction between India and the US on the economic front.

The India-US bilateral trade has grown from $126 billion in 2017 to $142 billion in 2018. US exports to India in 2018 grew at nearly 30 per cent while Indian exports grew at about 12 per cent. Over the last two years, India has also increased purchase of oil and gas and civilian aircraft and defence equipment from the US.

However, India’s economic growth has slowed down in the last few years, with the country’s GDP currently at around 5 per cent (down from 7.5 per cent in 2015-16). India thus needs to boost exports, attract both investment and technology, and provide employment to its population, most of whom are under the age of 29 years. India needs labour-intensive economic growth and one potential avenue could be attracting the American – and Japanese – companies that are leaving the Chinese market. For that India needs to do more than simply lower corporate tax rate — it needs to provide incentives to these companies.

Also read: Will work to make our countries even more prosperous, Trump says at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event

India in US’ scheme of things

India lies at the heart of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s support is critical when it comes to confronting a Chinese-led global order. It was therefore interesting that while Trump spoke in detail about the India-US security partnership, the only aspect PM Modi spoke about was counter-terrorism.

Moreover, while Trump spoke about the upcoming India-US joint tri-service military exercise that will take place in November, there was no reference to both countries upholding the rules-based international liberal order, Indo Pacific or the Quad. Maybe those will be discussed next week when there are bilateral discussions between the two countries both on the sidelines at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as well as at meetings in Washington DC.

Indians and Indian leaders have always believed that India’s millennia-old civilisation, critical geostrategic location and population size guarantee it a place under the sun, which the American partnership and support completely reflects. What New Delhi needs to bear in mind is that it is India’s democratic and pluralist credentials, its rapid economic growth after the 1990s, large military base and potential, and the rise of China that have made countries around the globe, including the US, look at India with renewed interest.

While the India-US relationship benefits from personal chemistry between leaders and people-to-people ties, its long-term sustenance rests on economic and defence bonds. To ensure the American and global interest remain intact, India needs to sustain economic growth, its vibrant democracy and build its military capabilities.

The author is a Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011) and ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017). Views are personal.

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  1. Aparna Pande, the title may read with one slight change, “Massive crowd at Howdy Modi event in US is a sign of thriving Indian ‘Patriotism’ overseas.” It easy to confuse patriotism and nationalism, because they once meant more or less the same thing. With the rise of fascism in Europe, nationalism had come to mean something different from patriotism, something fierce, something violent: less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people. Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred. For instance, islamic Pakistan is driven by a morbid fear and vicious hatred of a Kafir India. That’s Pakistan’s nationalism. To confuse one for the other is to pretend that hate is love and fear is courage. We did not see fear or hatred in that crowd of 50,000 cheering people. We saw love for their motherland and for the people of India, and wanting India and its people to thrive. It was pure PATRIOTISM!

  2. Vast majority of NRIs in US are upper caste, they off coarse love BJP and Modi like their brothers and sisters back in India. One of the most under reported stories of Modi’s rise is rock solid support from core upper castes of India.

    • Hey indocon1111, Did you go about collecting NRI’s caste certificates to make that statement? Let me tell you what’s unreported: one of the most unreported stories is the demise of the idea that Pakistan represents muslim nationalism of the subcontinent, long time back. With the division of the muslims of the sub-continent into three units, it is no longer possible for Pakistan to claim muslim leadership. If at all, a country can make a claim, then it is India, which hosts the second largest population of muslims. It is India that needs to worry about the persecuted muslim minority sects in Pakistan. Maybe, somebody should explain that to Shivam ViJ. He’s going on about like that emperor wearing no clothes and there was no one to tell him!

  3. It is proof of new imperial policy of using migrants generations for internal & external policy initiatives. It is already tested in few African countries where we have witnessed dual national as President & PM etc. So instead of fixing with Modi, just check the new phenomenon with little attention. Foreign money, Foreign political actors etc are at front and who is behind them in develop world? Trump who used bad language against migrants , the vulnerable community now praised Indian Americans , What it means? Misusing of Non residents against their parent countries is a new smart agenda. Even in Pakistan we have witnessed it in recent times. It is high time to think about it.

    • The Chinese yuan has been supporting the Pakistan’s dismal economy for sometime now. Do you think the Chinese take over of the port of Hambantota as an isolated event? The Chinese Kingdom has no boundaries. Emperor Xi is coming for the entire Pakistan. Pakistan had already ceded Aksai and its women to the Chinese. So, why not cede the entire nation? muslims are always on the winning side. Aamir Riaz will have no problem ditching al Lah to become an atheist comrade and sing the praises of CPC.

  4. This is the reality indeed. Thank you for this write up. I wish these facts motivate our younger generation and help becoming a leader. All the best.

  5. ‘Trump and Modi in Texas, USA addressed 50,000 Indian crowd; what they achieved? Both had energized their own racial and religious extreme groups polarizing their population in to moderate and extreme divisions. Both have habit of talking about themselves and multiply hundreds of times their real achievements, both have been caught several times talking false statements without any fear or shame, both have misused their Constitutional position crossing their limits and the worst both have radicalized their extreme religious bases only for political gains. Really Trump is right now in hot water and coming closer to be impeached while Modi has no such threat; he with the support of RSS has sufficiently radicalized masses, he may continue another decade without any fear or shame.

    • When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Get back to the motherly arms of Hinduism. Unlike islam, Hinduism offers reincarnation, until you yourself get tired of that birth and death cycle! islam only offers 72 raisins and Christianity will guilt you and drain your life’s energy. Instead of complaining, pick up the Bhagavat Gita and start reading. You may learn the purpose of life!

  6. Sir,
    Manmohan Singh created affluent middle class in India.
    And the same middle class migrated outside for greener pasture.
    A period after prosperity is the period of blindness.
    It creates awakening of your religious past, nationalist past and so on.
    And You tend to get carried away with whatever is served to you, whatever is fed to you. You don’t try to delve too much in the initial phase, the first phase.
    But after a certain decades, second phase begins and you become pragmatic. You realise of what wrong fed to you.
    The middle class is going through the first phase and cursing the one whose policies made them rich(Congress) and became past conscious.
    They have blindly became nationalists.

    Europe too saw this period in 19th century.
    Blind nationalism led to wars and in 20th century, they became calm.
    The same will happen in India but pray that they don’t go for war and shift peacefully to second phase of being pragmatists.

    • Not Manmohan Singh but P.V. Narsimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee are responsible for India’s economic prosperity post 1991. Manmohan Singh is by training a bureaucrat so he only followed orders, earlier those of PVNR and later those of Sonia Gandhi.

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