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Jaishankar denies PM endorsed Trump; experts see risk of alienating Democrats

Introducing Trump to the audience at the Houston event, Modi had said, “Friends, we in India have connected well with President Trump. The words of candidate Trump ‘Abki baar Trump sarkar’ rang loud and clear.”

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: October 2, 2019 4:04:40 am
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Washington on Monday. (AP)

Stressing that India has a non-partisan approach to domestic US politics, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has said that during the ‘Howdy, Modi’ rally in Houston, Texas, on September 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was merely referring to the phrase “Abki Baar Trump Sarkaar” used by the US President’s supporters during his 2016 campaign, and “he did not say that” himself.

In Washington DC, Jaishankar on Monday said, in response to a question, “Please, look very carefully at what the Prime Minister said. My recollection…was that candidate Trump had used this (slogan). So the PM is talking about the past. I don’t think we should, honestly, misinterpret what was said…He (Modi) was pretty clear what he was talking about. He was saying, ‘this is what you said as a candidate, which showed that you were trying to (connect with India)’.”

Introducing Trump to the audience at the Houston event, Modi had said, “Friends, we in India have connected well with President Trump. The words of candidate Trump ‘Abki baar Trump sarkar’ rang loud and clear.”

Although the event was attended by about 20 US Congressmen, including Democrat and House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, Modi’s use of the slogan was perceived by some as endorsement of Trump.

Team Trump, official Twitter account for Trump’s re-election campaign, tweeted, “President @realDonaldTrump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Modi!” It has been tweeted 5,000 times and liked more than 21,000 times since September 23.

Kayleigh McEnany, national press secretary for Trump’s campaign, also tweeted: “President @realDonaldTrump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they shared a stage in Houston…”

Looking at the risks, a top former Barack Obama administration official who was the key player on India-US ties, and is not part of the Trump administration, said, “It’s just 14 months from now that the US may have a new President. This slogan, I am not sure, will be seen very positively by Democrats in the House.”

George Perkovich, vice-president at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Indian Express: “The issue is not impeachment. It is that Trump is the most polarising and erratic president of the 20th century. By appearing to align so closely with him, Prime Minister Modi risks alienating Republicans who are most knowledgeable about foreign policy as well as Democrats. This would be risky in any case…”

Eurasia Group managing director Robert Kaplan, bestselling author of 18 books on foreign affairs and travel, including “Monsoon” and “Revenge of Geography”, who participated in the Indo-US Forum in Delhi last month, said, “Indians, like others, should invest in countries and companies based on objective criteria, and not get caught up in travails of a single personality.”

Anish Goel, who served from 2008 to 2011 in White House’s National Security Council as director and then senior director for South Asia and is currently senior fellow at the New America, told The Indian Express: “The rally in Houston can certainly be seen as a success from the perspective of both leaders. It was an unprecedented spectacle that illustrates the strength of the personal relationship between Trump and Modi. Despite the absence of any substantive progress on trade or other issues, the bilateral relationship is getting closer, if only at the summit level. The long term impacts are more complicated. Foreign leaders usually go to great lengths to appear non-partisan in their relations with the United States. By invoking Trump’s campaign slogan and modifying his own campaign slogan to praise Trump, Modi had thrown that strategy out the window. Should Trump lose reelection, Modi could find it difficult to rebuild relations with his Democratic successor.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told The Indian Express: “Certainly, Modi incurs a fair amount of risk by investing so much personal capital in a foreign leader who is so politically radioactive. To be sure, Modi had his reasons in Houston for offering such effusive praise and endorsements for Trump and his policies. Above all, Modi is savvy and knows that Trump responds well to flattery. Modi’s Trump-focused charm offensive was likely meant, at least in part, to elicit more support from Trump for India at a moment when the US-India relationship has sputtered a bit and as Washington has scaled up its cooperation with Pakistan.”

Richard M Rossow, senior adviser and Wadhwani chair in India-US Policy studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, took a more middle-of-the-road position: “I do not think Prime Minister Modi has any real risk in continuing to engage President Trump despite the US political turmoil. Most facets of our cooperation — whether in the economic realm, security realm, or people-to-people contact — are fundamentally sound. While there will be some change of direction or pace, cooperation will continue in these areas due to our shared prosperity and shared security concerns.

“At least on trade, the Trump administration has been the most difficult for India in many decades, so in some ways the leader-level bonhomie is not always matched by actions.”

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