It was left to US president Donald Trump, much vilified at home over his “Muslim ban” against six nations and the dismantling of the ObamaCare medical insurance programme, to speak the three words that are bound to gladden the heart of every democrat, in his opening remarks at the joint press opportunity with prime minister Narendra Modi standing next to him :
We, The People.
It was a balmy afternoon at the White House as the two leaders met, in front of a small group of officials, India hands and journalists. Except that no questions were allowed. Neither Trump nor Modi wanted to risk their brand new relationship to caustic questions and comments by pesky journalists.
Certainly, with the air at home heavy with lynchings of young and middle-aged Muslim men, the prime minister wanted to demonstrate that he was the indisputed leader of the world’s largest democracy. And that he was coming to meet the leader of the world’s oldest in this capacity.
That both these leaders of the free world, Modi and Trump, could well take on Islamic terrorism — and even China — if they played the field together.
The prime minister has left the US and is on his return home, via the Netherlands. As he launches his fourth year in power, Modi may certainly pat his Foreign Office on the back for delivering a visit that has been big on both symbolism and substance.
The bureaucracies on both sides kept expectations low before the visit. Certainly, India will have to wait and see how and whether the US follows through on all the major issues discussed, including the naming of Syed Salahuddin as a globally designated terrorist and indicting Pakistan for hosting several terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed as well as the D-Company on its soil – the last, of course, referring to Dawood Ibrahim, who is said to live in Karachi, Pakistan, since the 1993 Mumbai blasts.
For two leaders big on social media, it is clearly the moment rather than the message, that is all-important.
Trump has had few successes with his domestic press these last several months in power. As for Modi, no other leader at home comes even remotely close to his popularity or his aspiration to power – Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is in Italy with his grandmother and neither Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh or any of the other Opposition are saying very much.
It is true that Modi’s US visit underlines the fact that he is totally in command of domestic politics – meaning, even if there is international criticism of his own social policies, including the overt intolerance towards Muslims and Dalits as demonstrated by the latest “Economist” magazine, he can easily shrug it off.
Modi, in fact, referred to the fact that the world wasn’t interested in criticizing India when he spoke to the Indian diaspora at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington DC, on the eve of his meeting with Trump.
When India conducted the “surgical strikes” against Pakistan, the PM said, the world, if it wanted, could have “plucked the hair out of India’s head” (“baal noch leti”) and “put us in the witness box in the court of international opinion” (“katghare main khara kar deti”). But it did not do so. That is because it agreed with India’s actions, Modi added.
Certainly, the PM is right – up to a point. The US and Russia are too busy sparring against each other in Syria as well as in Afghanistan, and the Americans under Trump are actually withdrawing from their primary position as world power. Meanwhile, Western Europe seems too weak to say anything much.
But the real significance of Modi’s visit to the US is not that Syed Salahuddin will be chastised or that the joint statement names other terrorist outfits living in Pakistan or that both sides will undertake “strategic cooperation” in the Indo-Pacific (a reference to China) or that India and the US will consult much more closely on Afghanistan and share intelligence on this and other matters.
The real significance, as the PM pointed out, is the underlining of the fact that India “considers the US its primary partner for (its) social and economic transformation”. In this sense, Modi has taken forward former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s characterization, in 1999 only a year after the nuclear tests, of the US as a “natural ally.” While Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh told then president George Bush that “India loves you.”
The importance of India’s keen interest in embracing Trump is not only symbolic – Modi likes to hug the leaders he meets, whether Vladimir Putin at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, or Emmanuel Macron in the French Elysee, so clasping Trump around the chest was a given – but hugely substantive.
Unlike China, which used its economic embrace of the US to transform itself and become a world power – note that Modi is using the exact same words – Modi is saying that India wants to become friends and partners with America first and above everybody else.
The PM is indicating that he can still wean Trump away from China; after all, both are leaders of the free world. Xi Jinping and America’s economies may be integrated, but Modi is also indicating to Trump that you have to watch out for the Chinese, notwithstanding its influence with North Korea.
The huge Indian emphasis on the economy, on buying a hundred civilian aircraft from a US manufacturer as well as 22 Predator drones etc is not accidental. These are bait, and in these transactional times, the Indian side is hoping the US sees it as such.
Certainly, the PM was never going to destroy his impending relationship with Trump by bringing up the H1B visa question for a few thousand Indian software professionals who might be affected.
The game, at least for Modi, is much bigger here.
Certainly, India needs the US to invest back home, so as to create jobs – this is what his outreach to US top CEOs, including Sundar Pichai of Google, Tim Cooke of Apple etc was about. But Modi is also saying that he is willing to create US jobs through all these lollipop defence deals – as long as Trump also begins to look more favourably at India, and less so at China.
Note that Modi himself has stopped berating the Chinese publicly. He knows that he can only wean Trump away from China – and back to making him say rude things about Beijing, including it being a “currency manipulator” – if he can offer something in return.
This, something, is the huge Indian market.
Inviting US CEOs to make money in India, while India bails out the US civil aviation and defence aviation in the US is a small price to pay for Trump’s kindly eye towards Delhi.
Imagine the press when Ivanka Trump comes to India. One would shudder to think what social media would do then – as Trump said at the White House with Modi standing next to him, “we are the believers,’ the giants of social media.
The question, of course, is whether the US is going to bite Modi’s charm trade offensive and ignore the BJP’s not-so-covert policies of not only making Indian Muslims second-class citizens in their own home but making them pay for it with their lives.
After all, the US has done exactly the same thing with China these last 30 years, since Deng Xiaoping opened its huge economy and asked the Americans to Make in China.
The Americans forgot about one-party rule, dictatorship, authoritarianism, human rights abuses, etc, in China – all because American companies were making money hand over fist in the Middle Kingdom.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is saying the exact same thing to President Donald Trump : Come, Make in India. Forget about a few lynchings of Muslims, give or take.
The coming months will decide which way the wind blows – in both countries.