The loudest applause in the three-hour-long pomp and show that was ‘Howdy, Modi’ was heard when US President Donald Trump talked about “radical Islamic terrorism”. The entire stadium gave him a standing ovation, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his delegation. It was impromptu, the standing ovation was unasked for.
The second loudest applause was when Modi talked about giving a farewell to Article 370. After the applause, he asked people to give a standing ovation to India’s lawmakers for passing this historic legislation despite the ruling BJP not having a majority in the Upper House.
Between those two moments of applause, lie the politics of Trump and Modi -- strong, tough on terror and immigration, calling a spade a spade. But those moments could also shape the way India-US ties progress in the run-up to the American presidential elections in a year’s time.
Trump understands his audience. He understands that for many of them, Islamic terrorism is still a big, rankling issue. Even though America hasn't faced a major terror attack since 9/11, the threat of radical Islam is still a potent fear. Smart politicians prey on fear. More people have died in America due to gun violence than due to terror attacks in the last two decades. And yet Trump and Congress can't bring themselves to pass common sense legislation.
Trump also talked about border security. He said border security is as important for India as it is for America. The difference being India's borders are threatened by a hostile neighbour, while America's are threatened by poor people seeking a better future.
Texas is where a large part of the immigration debate has been framed over the last three years of Trump's presidency. It's where the biggest and filthiest detention camps are present. Texas is not a swing state. It has always been a red state and Trump doesn’t need to worry about putting Texas in the bag for 2020. But it was clear from his speech that he was using the platform of ‘Howdy, Modi’ from the state of Texas to tell the nation where he and his government stood on immigration. This is definitely going to be a top campaign issue for Trump 2020.
This combined with a strengthened US economy which Trump talked up again. The lowest unemployment rate, the highest rate of creation of new jobs; Trump has clearly dovetailed both issues -- immigration and economy.
Indian Americans have always been working class and Democrat-leaning. Trump in his speech sought to make a distinction between the highly paid, highly skilled, legal Indian American immigrants and those poorer ones trying to enter America illegally and in his own words, “rip us off”. If some sections of the 3 million-strong Indian American community are persuaded by Trump to vote for him, it'll go a long way in blunting Trump's anti-immigrant image.
For Modi, by saying, ‘Abki Baar Trump Sarkar’, he has literally and figuratively endorsed Trump for a second term. Nothing wrong with that because right now Trump looks to be in numero uno position to return to power. The Democratic field is scattered and uninspiring. So it’s a safe bet to put money on Trump right now. But politics in America is as fickle as politics in India.
A foreign leader has to be extremely brave to wade into the domestic American politics. Let’s not forget even Modi’s good friend Bibi Netanyahu lost an election recently. By backing Trump openly, Modi has thrown caution to the wind. Trump is also India’s best bet right now given the unpredictability of folks on the other side like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris when it comes to contentious issues like Article 370 and alleged human rights violations in Kashmir.
Even a pragmatic candidate like Joe Biden would want to be seen making the right noises on Kashmir. If Trump were to lose, it will put Modi in an unenviable position to make amends and build bridges with an incoming Democrat President. A position he will have only himself to blame for.