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A win-win for Modi and Trump?

February 17, 2020 18:31 IST
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'For Trump, this maddening extravaganza will play out well in his election campaign, showing himself off as a hugely popular world leader,' points out Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.
The second curtain-raiser before the American president's journey to India.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and US President Donald John Trump at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, September 23, 2019. Photograph: ANI Photo

Among the notable interactions External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has had on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference (February 14-16), the momentary encounter with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands out, if only as a timely damage control exercise as the countdown begins for Namaste Trump (external link).

Jaishankar since hailed Crazy Nancy's -- a Trump coinage, by the way -- 'consistent support' to India-US ties as a 'great source of strength'.

This exuberant invocation of the moribund 'bipartisan consensus' in the US (between the Republicans and Democrats) as regards the importance of partnership with India has become a diplomatic event.

A series of episodic events lately signalled certain erosion in the reservoir of support for India in the US, especially since the Howdy, Modi rally last September in Houston.

Top Democratic figures, including frontrunners in the November presidential election, increasingly voiced criticism of India, which reflected, partly at least, some disaffection over Modi's interference in the US election.

A nadir was reached when Jaishankar called off in a huff a scheduled meeting in Washington with influential Democratic lawmakers.

Without doubt, Delhi has been almost entirely responsible for fracturing the 'bipartisan consensus' in the US. And this at a time when big powers such as Russia and China are chaffing under the weight of the 'bilateral consensus' in the US that demonises them as either revisionist powers or predators.

Simply put, there was no reason on earth why Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi needed to perform publicly in Houston as if he were Trump's election agent canvassing votes in the Indian-American community in the US.

IMAGE: External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Munich Security Conference, February 15, 2020. Photograph: Kind courtey Dr S Jaishankar/Twitter

India and Pelosi go a long way, much before Trump appeared on the political horizon. She was of great help in playing the 'Dalai Lama card' to poke the Chinese from time to time. She is wired into the Israeli lobby in the US.

Simply put, it's good to have Pelosi as friend on Capitol Hill, a towering presence as Congresswoman since 1987 who led the House Democrats since 2003, serving twice as speaker.

And Pelosi is a kingmaker still. She told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an interview airing on Monday that she is 'not counting Joe Biden out' following the former vice-president's disappointing finishes in the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic primaries.

Above all, Pelosi tore up her copy of Trump's State of the Union address (in his august presence) since she found its contents 'terrible', a pack of lies.

It is this last famous act of Pelosi that makes one curious about Jaishankar's reported meeting with Pelosi. Trump is known to be a vengeful man. Did Jaishankar take Modi's prior permission?

Meanwhile, Trump is somehow under the impression that Modi is arranging a staggering welcome for him, ensuring that 5 million to 7 million Gujaratis will line up the streets leading from Ahmedabad airport when he lands there on February 24.

Now, on the other hand, Jaishankar is deriving 'such a pleasure to catch up' with old friend Pelosi.

Sometimes one cannot help but wonder whether the US-Indian 'strategic partnership' isn't anything at all but a pantomime in reality -- theatrical entertainment expressed by exaggerated mime.

Take Namaste Trump. For sure, Modi is lining up for Trump an ecstatic experience that the latter cannot possibly get anywhere else today on the planet where he is a universally disliked figure.

Which other ruler but Modi would order 5 to 7 million citizens to come out and line up streets to wave national flags at someone they haven't even heard of previously and can barely recognise?

For Trump, this maddening extravaganza will play out well in his election campaign, showing himself off as a hugely popular world leader.

For Modi, perhaps, rubbing shoulders with the most powerful man in the world becomes a vanity fair before his home crowd. A 'win-win'?

But what if Trump doesn't make it to the White House for a second term? Nine months is a long time in politics and there is a body of well-informed opinion in America that 'Trump is very beatable' (external link) in the November election.

In fact, the discourses in the US are increasingly about who among the Democratic contenders would have the greater chance of defeating Trump -- what Americans call the 'electability debate'.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (external link) had Joe Biden on top 50-44, while Sanders led Trump 49-45 -- a statistically insignificant difference.

Enter Jaishankar. Endowed with an eclectic mind, and a smart temperament unburdened by deep-rooted convictions, it would have come naturally to Jaishankar to put an Indian egg in Pelosi's basket as well.

But Jaishankar took abundant precaution not to seek any meeting with Pelosi as such. He simply chose to accost her to exchange pleasantries as they trooped out of the conference hall during a coffee break at the Munich Security Conference.

Nonetheless, the purpose has been served. He contrived to tweak Namaste Trump just enough to give it some sense of proportions by relaying an exaggerated impression to the Indian audience that he has rebuilt the broken bridges with the Democratic Party leadership in America.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service officer for more than 29 years. He has served as India's ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan and has been a contributor to for well over a decade.

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