On Modi’s US agenda: Trump, Trade, Toilets, Terrorism

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bengaluru, India, May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa

NEW YORK – Many bear hugs have been exchanged by PM Modi and President Trump since their first encounter on the lawns of the White House in July of 2017. When they reenact that exuberant camaraderie once again this coming Sunday at the NRG Stadium in Houston, exchange a warm embrace, shake hands, the difference will be rapturous and deafening applause from more than 50,000 people in attendance. A likely standing ovation will follow.

The exciting political and diplomatic spectacle coming up in Houston is being touted by organizers of the ‘Howdy Modi’ event as unique. That for the first time a sitting US President will join a rally by a foreign leader; the rally itself bigger in turnout than for any foreign leader ever – except for the Pope.

Milan Vaishnav, who heads the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Post that he could not remember a time when an American president was the guest at a rally for a foreign leader on US soil. “We have to acknowledge what a spectacle this is,” he said. “Other than maybe the pope, it’s hard to think of this kind of setting happening before.”

The interwoven irony and mix of clever, adroit politics of this camaraderie of convenience will not be lost on the discerning, however.

In recent days and weeks, US and India have been almost on a diplomatic standoff with obstinate stance on trade and tariff issues. Trump hollered foul on several occasions on trade agreements, penalized India. Modi didn’t waver, though. Shot back with stiff penalties on some American products. The tit for tat game of friction threatened to veer into hostility.

Now the sudden, grand reconciliation in Houston, that will iron out all wrinkles and creases like a giant steamer on a cotton shirt fresh out from the dryer.

There’s an obvious lesson here for political minnows: nothing quite like appeasing and pleasing your critical voter base as a rally with tens of thousands of fans cheering your every word.

The visual and visceral experience in Houston will be more dramatic and stunning for Trump than for Modi who is used to bigger crowds in India during campaigns. Perhaps, for the first time, Trump will feel diminutive on stage, in the presence of the adulation for Modi from his raucous fans.

What’s more important is that Modi’s summit with Trump will be shown around the world, especially on national TV here, and India and the Indian diaspora will be the winner in the process. It’s one thing to see a clip of a foreign leader being greeted in the White House, and quite another to see two leaders striking rapport live on TV, with admiring Indian supporters.

Supporters of both Modi and Trump will feel elated, with no doubt, a deep sense of achievement. Even though this would be the third meeting between the duo in the past three months, after the G-20 summit in Japan in June and the G-7 summit in France last month. This one is one for the record books.

And there’s plenty that can be achieved between India and the US, especially on the business front.

Tom Rogan writing in Washington Examiner, pointed out that the rally “might seem silly, but this rally will serve real foreign policy interests,” before touting the market potential for American exporters in India, including defense deals.

Rogan opined that India is taking an increasingly active and confident role in challenging Chinese imperial aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s action also benefits the US by signaling its alignment to America rather than Russia. In a world increasingly defined by great power struggle, and by Sino-Russian cooperation, India’s burgeoning alliance with America is of critical value, he said.

Ronak Desai, Associate at the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University, writing for Forbes, pointed out that a joint appearance by Modi and Trump in America’s oil and gas capital reflects a desire by Washington and New Delhi to deepen their bilateral energy cooperation.

Last year, Washington and Delhi signed a US-India Strategic Energy Partnership to enhance collaboration in this arena. Both countries believe the full promise of energy trade remains unfulfilled and want to increase cooperation, particularly with respect to shale and liquefied natural (LNG) gas, said Desai.

‘India’s massive energy demand coupled with its limited domestic supply makes it a huge potential market for American oil and gas exporters,’ he said.

Beyond just oil and gas, Houston enjoys its own unique relationship with India. According to data compiled by the city, more than 28 Houston-based companies operate 69 subsidiaries in India. Houston is also the fourth-largest gateway for bilateral trade between the two countries. The South Asian giant is Houston’s 10th largest trading partner, with trade valued at over $4.3 billion, a 36% increase from the previous year, reported Forbes.

A local affiliate of ABC pointed out that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott met Modi while traveling to India last year. Houston-India trade is worth more than $7 billion annually, according to ABC.

Trade and business deals will be a priority for Modi as he moves on from Houston to New York, where apart from delivering his address to the United Nations General Assembly, he will give the keynote address at the annual Bloomberg Global Business Forum, and pick up an award for one of his pet domestic initiatives: making more toilets in India.

Modi will receive an award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his terrific “Clean India” campaign that has constructed millions of toilets across the country.

“India’s a big, complex case, and some of the recent things, I think, people are really questioning, rightly,” Bill Gates said in an interview with The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor. But the award from the foundation is about India’s work on sanitation, Gates said, which has helped combat diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people a year. “We think the head of government that took these moves on sanitation, that’s worthy of note.”

All along the way on his US trip, Modi will talk of the scourge of terrorism emanating from Pakistan which is denting India’s development agenda and economic progress. PM Imran Khan will be in New York at the same time as Modi and it remains to be seen if the two even shake hands if they cross paths.

That minor diplomatic irritant apart, Modi is assured of grand success on this trip to the US.

Perhaps, Modi and Trump might rise together triumphantly to say to the crowd in Houston: “Houston, we found a solution to the problem.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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