Indulging the egos of preening populists risks a Democrat-Republican split on India that isn’t in New Delhi’s interests
Nobody could expect sophistication from an event titled "Howdy, Modi!" And the Indian prime minister's rally in Houston – attended by 50,000 or so screaming Indian-Americans, two dozen US congressmen and senators, and President Donald Trump – was every bit as cheesy as its title.
In his five-plus years in power, Modi has made a habit of addressing stadiums packed with the Indian diaspora around the world. They're part political rally, part celebration of ersatz "Indian-ness" and part reminder to the locals about the diaspora's size and power. Trump isn't the first world leader to turn up: In 2015, David Cameron was willing to warm up Modi's crowd at Wembley stadium. But there's a special triumphal edge to Modi's events in America, which once banned him from entering because of "severe violations of religious freedom" under his provincial administration.
The only political leader ever to be so sanctioned is now prime minister of India. Of course, America has never had trouble working with authoritarians if it needs them. But the number of powerful American politicians willing to stand on stage as a respectful backdrop for Modi's speeches is a reminder that India is almost uniquely placed right now: a country that most in the corridors of US power would be willing to woo, but not one seen as a threat. Which other foreign politician would be able to expect the presence of not just a president but so many other politicians at a rally on US soil? You certainly couldn't imagine a "Howdy, Xi!" event. For one, the Chinese president would probably have insisted the large contingent of protesters outside the venue be pushed out of sight. The prime minister of democratic India made no such demands.
There are only four million or so Indian Americans, but they are the richest such community and much in demand as donors and supporters. The "Howdy, Modi!" program began with a tribute to the melding of cultures: a medley of Hindu and Christian hymns playing while photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were projected to the crowd. Then Modi and Trump came out; it is hard to imagine two leaders less like Gandhi and King.
Trump wasn't shy about underlining what he had in common with Modi, and with that crowd in Houston. Trump's biggest applause line of the night was a condemnation of "radical Islamic terror" – the phrase he used to complain Obama refused to say. Trump also told the crowd that India and the US both care deeply about "border security"; which I suppose is objectively true, given that the US already has detention camps for thousands of new migrants, and India is building them in preparation for housing tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of long-term residents that it might soon declare stateless. Trump also spoke of the 300 million Indians that Modi has lifted out of poverty, a statement that is typically misleading: most were lifted out of poverty by the administration of Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Trump knows all about politicians taking credit for their predecessors' achievements.
Modi, in turn, praised Trump's wit, his wisdom, his "mastery" of the "art of the deal", and said he had done great things for America and the world. If nothing else, this might at least lead to some much-needed introspection among second-generation Indian-Americans, who both skew liberal in US politics and are Modi's biggest fans. The Indian PM then repeated Trump's adaptation of Modi's famous 2014 campaign slogan "Abki baar Modi Sarkar" ("This time, Modi's government"), to "Abki baar Trump Sarkar" – as close to an endorsement as it is possible to go.
And there, too, lies the danger of this and similar events. As the example of Benjamin Netanyahu shows, one of the dangers of the era of populists is that it can warp bilateral relationships away from strong bipartisan support. The most Modi-friendly politician in the US is a Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard; but she couldn't turn up after a recent investigative article revealed her past dependence on Hindu nationalist funding. The senior Democrat on stage was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who was careful in his speech to praise India's pluralism and respect for human rights, as well as the secular values of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru – a figure that Modi's party men hate and despise.
Indian Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but it is clearly the Republicans who intend to pander to their worst instincts. On the very day that Trump held Modi's hand and took a victory lap around a Houston stadium, Bernie Sanders wrote in the Houston Chronicle that we might "hear much about the friendship between the American and Indian peoples," but an "unacceptable" silence about the human rights crisis in Kashmir. A Democrat-Republican divide on India policy isn't in New Delhi's interest. Nor are events that make the Indo-US partnership look less like it is based on shared principles and more on the egos of preening populists.