When the leader of a country goes on an official visit to another nation, s/he usually praises that country. But ‘Howdy, Modi!’ was not an official India-US event. It was a private affair organised by a little-known organisation of Indian-Americans, Texas India Forum. Modi lavishly praised Trump, and Trump lavishly praised Modi. It was a match made in heaven, two leaders for whom everything is always about themselves.
Modi began his speech by saying he represented 130 crore Indians. So, when they asked him ‘Howdy, Modi?’, he gave his short reply, in several Indian languages: ‘everything is fine’. Subtly but surely, he was equating himself with India. Modi is India, and India is Modi.
It is with this same formula of personal praise that Modi has finally won Trump over, after nearly three years of trying. “He was a household name,” Modi said of Trump, “and very popular even before he won to occupy the highest office in this great country.” This was only the beginning – Modi went on for quite a few minutes in his praise of Trump, saying exactly what Trump wanted to hear.
Trump has been playing hard to get since he became president in 2016, refusing to give Modi the photo-ops that he needs for the careful projection of his image. The biggest setback to India-US relations was not when the US offered to mediate between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, or when the US withdrew preferential trade status for India. It was when Trump couldn’t make it as chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations a few months before Modi was up for re-election. That was the sort of photo-op Modi really needed, to show his voters how he is personal friends with the most powerful world leader.
All that Modi needed from Trump was optics. Work visas for Indians and their spouses, friction in trade relations, and tariffs were important issues for Trump in front of his domestic audience. He needed to show his voters he was being tough in bringing home more jobs, investments, and more money for exports.
This was surprising, because Modi and Trump are too much a mirror image to get along well.
“My good friend Barack,” is how Modi once famously addressed President Obama, who on his part stuck to protocol and addressed Modi as Mr Prime Minister. Trump, on the other hand, is just the sort of leader who wants to say ‘Modi is a friend of mine. He’s a great guy.’
For Modi, diplomacy is more about his relationship with foreign leaders than strengthening India’s ties with other nations. Ditto for Donald Trump, who likes to be seen as the man who can strike the best deals for America. Modi and Trump should have thus been a natural partnership. But Trump has been cold, if not often hostile, to India for most of his presidency.
Opposites attract. A liberal Obama and a populist Modi got along well because Obama saw India as a bulwark against China. It puzzled even some Americans why Modi and Obama loved each other so much. It might have helped that most Indian Americans are Democratic voters but Obama made it clear he wasn’t ever endorsing Hindu nationalism. Quite the contrary.
There’s so much in common between Trump and Modi that it almost seemed Trump had learnt from Modi. Trump became president two years after Modi first came to power in May 2014. Both are polarising leaders who claim to represent the marginalised masses from the hinterland against the elites who dominate the capital. Both vilify the liberal media, though Modi is more subtle. Both of them project a personality cult over and above established procedures and protocol. If Modi represents Hindu nationalism, Trump is about white supremacism, and both have a common enemy: “Islamic terrorism,” as Trump declared at the Texas event Sunday.
Friend request accepted
Modi finally won over Trump by giving him what he wants: a pre-election endorsement. Trump will do anything to win votes, and who could understand that better than Modi?
Trump has had recent political trouble in Texas. The traditionally Republican state saw the Democrats doing well in the mid-terms. Texas could spell trouble for Trump in the 2020 presidential election. In such a precarious scenario, every vote counts – and Modi is doing his bit to persuade Indian American voters to dump the Democrats.
Again, such open endorsement of Trump over Democrats isn’t kosher for a prime minister of India. What if the Democrats come to power? Won’t they snub Modi because of this partisan stand? It’s the sort of political risk Modi and Trump love to take, and it pays handsomely.
For now, the inevitable has happened. Modi and Trump are finally friends. The Indian American community has been leveraged in the US’ domestic politics by India. Modi and Trump going around a stadium, hand in hand, is just the sort of thing both leaders value the most. All is well.
Views are personal.