On Sunday, while Donald Trump was listening to paeans in his praise by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, the intrepid US press was busy digging details of his scandalous conversations with the Ukrainian president.
In the conversation — Trump later owned up to it — the US president pressed the Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on his potential rival Joe Biden. He now faces the prospect of being impeached by the Senate for seeking external intervention in the US election. But, this is unlikely to bother Trump. Because, he is known to go to any extent to win an election.
His desperation for votes was the underlying theme of the Houston event too. Though it was titled ‘Howdy, Modi’ and was meant to be an interaction between Modi and the Indian diaspora, the organisers used the classical proxy marketing strategy to sell the other product —Trump — by showcasing Modi.
The irony of seeing the self-proclaimed scourge of immigrants wave at tens of thousands of Indian-Americans would not have been lost on those watching the spectacle at Houston. But, what will Trump not do for a few more votes!
In 2016, Hillary Clinton had the support of nearly 85% of the nearly 4.5 million persons of Indian origin in the US, a statistic Trump wants to change in the next election. Contrary to his own claims, Trump’s has been the worst government for Indians in decades. It has made H-1B visas tougher leading to a fall in approval rates, proposed that the right to work of spouses of H-1B visa holders be revoked and made it difficult for Indians to compete with holders of advanced degrees from US colleges. On the trade front, he has been a hard haggler ready to raise tariffs and take away India’s special privileges under his stated policy of ‘America First.’
A recent survey held by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) and AAPI Data, indicated that Indian-Americans do not approve of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and tough measures against those living in the US without proper documents — around 5 lakh Indians are said to be part of this group. Indian voters are averse also to his right-wing, anti-minority rhetoric — understandably so because they are just about 1% of the US population and one of the biggest beneficiaries of the country’s liberal, capitalist ethos.
So, to romance the Indian-Americans, Trump is ready to forget his anti-immigrant rhetoric, sit in the audience with a stoic expression as the Prime Minister of India lauds his own government for revoking Kashmir’s special status, and run an impromptu victory lap in an arena full of people chanting ‘Modi, Modi.’ In short, for the support of Indian voters he is ready, as the Washington Post said, even to do the “warm-up act.”
At the end of the day, Trump would have gone back home believing the trouble was worth it since it ended with Modi’s endorsement of his re-election bid by rephrasing his popular slogan — “Ab ki baar Trump Sarkar. (This time a Trump government).”
The diaspora is smart enough to know that such spectacles are great opportunities to get together, sing, dance and celebrate the idea of India without compromising with their core political beliefs. So, nobody can guarantee the 50,000 Indian-Americans at Houston went back with a vow to vote for Trump in 2020. But, you can give full marks to Trump for being there, sitting humbly as a guest artist in an opera starring Modi and trying to influence the diaspora by raising the spectre of Islamic terror.
While it is easy to understand Trump’s compulsions, Modi’s strategy of endorsing the incumbent US President is baffling. Perhaps Modi didn’t have a choice.
Trump is known to lean on foreign leaders for electoral support. The emerging controversy about his call to the Ukrainian President is another example of his tendency to use his own and the country’s heft to win elections at home. Trump is a master of quid-pro-quo; he takes with both hands and then gives with one.
Modi’s support for Trump could have been part of I-stay-silent-on-Kashmir-you-massage-my-ego-in-public deal that would have been worked out by their backroom negotiators. Modi’s Kashmir ploy has been heavily criticised by the US media, many of its lawmakers have questioned the lockdown in Kashmir and curbs on human rights. When thousands of Indians applauded Modi’s Kashmir gambit while Trump stared in silence, it would have conveyed American quiescence to the world.
When the premier of a foreign country tries to mobilise a diaspora in a partisan manner, it can have far-reaching implications on bilateral relations. The situation is fraught for India also because Trump isn’t a Barack Obama — he is a hugely divisive factor in both domestic and international politics with a questionable moral compass.
In addition, Trump’s popularity ratings are low and there is no certainty he will be re-elected. As The Guardian argues, “Trump is circling the drain while clinging on to his own dizzy conspiracies. His election prospects are miserable and he desperately needs another looney-tuned cartoon like the Clinton email saga.” Imagine India’s embarrassment if Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders gets elected as US President in 2020 and asks the Indian premier “Howdy, Modi?” ull marks to Trump for guest appearance in opera starring Modi