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After Houston, the road ahead

September 23, 2019 13:07 IST
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'The challenge before the two countries is to turn the peak into a plateau and enter an irreversible phase of cooperation,' notes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with United States President Donald John Trump at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, September 22, 2019. Photograph: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with United States President Donald John Trump at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, September 22, 2019. Photograph: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

From 'estranged democracies' and 'engaged democracies', India and the US have become 'embraced democracies' overnight.

The proverbial rollercoaster of India-US relations reached its zenith at a historic summit between Prime Minister Narendra D Modi and President Donald J Trump in Houston on Sunday, witnessed by the world.

The challenge before the two countries is to turn the peak into a plateau and enter an irreversible phase of cooperation.

It was on 'a wing and a prayer' that friends of India approached the Houston jamboree as there were several factors for worry for impartial observers.

The first was the weather itself. Texas was ravaged by rains and storms a couple of days before and it appeared that the whole event would be affected, if not washed out. Many yagyas and homams may have been performed by the Hindus in the US who are generally believers in such rituals.

Since science cannot control the weather, it must have been the prayers that saved the event.


President Trump's unpredictability was a grave concern.

Mercifully, his tweets before the event were comforting, but there was many a slip between the cup and the lip. Preoccupied as he was about mediation over Kashmir, he could have upset the apple cart if he had mentioned the issue even in a guarded manner.

As it happened, it was PM Modi, who mentioned Kashmir and Article 370 and criticised 'some people' who could not run their own country opposing the change. He got a standing ovation over the abrogation of Article 370.

President Trump struck the right note on terrorism by mentioning the opposition to 'radical Islamic terrorism' and the right of countries to defend their borders.

'We have to secure our borders and free the world of radical Islamic terrorism,' he said. The fear that he may say something to allay the fears of Pakistanis in the gathering was unfounded. President Trump was at his unpredictable best by not saying anything that might hurt his bromance with PM Modi.

One other fear was that PM Modi might go overboard in praising President Trump and offend the Democrats, who have more supporters in the Indian community. This actually happened, particularly when he endorsed Trump's slogan, 'Ab ki bar Trump Sarkar'.

This is the first time that an Indian prime minister has endorsed a candidate for US president, obviously the price he had to pay for the extraordinary backing he received from President Trump.

PM Modi's statement was a complete reversal of his equation with then US president Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. Now India has a major stake in President Trump's victory in the November 2020 US presidential election.

The allegations about foreign intervention in US elections is still a live issue and there may be criticism that India tried to manipulate US citizens to vote in a particular manner. His embrace of the slogan about making 'America great again' was an extraordinary endorsement of nationalism against globalism.

The unofficial 'trade war' between India and the US could have made or marred the summit. But the subtle way in which the President Trump played the issue was a great relief. He hinted at the possibility of the trade imbalance being corrected by a large contract being negotiated by Petronet to import 5 million tons of LNG per year and many new defence deals, in addition to existing contracts amounting to $18 billion.

He also linked defense exports to India's security and announced the forthcoming joint triservices military exercise, Tiger Triumph.

In other words, the urgency of resolving the trade dispute has become less urgent. The US may be willing to wait for a gradual correction in the trade imbalance. Indian imports from the US will increase substantially on these deals, not to speak of many other new trade opportunities, which are being discussed.

Moreover, India has never invested in the US as it is doing today and it is reciprocal. We are doing the same in India, the President said.

Indian immigrants, who constituted the bulk of the audience, were looking for a way out of the tough immigration policy through the new bonhomie between the American president and the Indian prime minister.

No American president can give an assurance that immigration will be liberalised in the present context. But he introduced a distinction between different kinds of immigrants by saying that Indian immigrants have made a great impact on the US economy. He made it clear that talented Indians will be welcome.

Trump said America was proud of Indian Americans, would protect them and fight for them every day. He said it is illegal immigrants that he is against, as he would like tax-paying, responsible and loyal immigrants to get the benefits of the nation's prosperity.

Neither the president nor the prime minister touched upon issues like sanctions against Iran and Russian missiles. In fact, except for terrorism and India-Pakistan differences, none of the international issues figured in the two speeches. These would be dealt with at the New York meeting, but the stage has been set for resolving these problems rather than aggravating them.

PM Modi made use of the opportunity, as he always does, to showcase Indian achievements for the benefit of not only the president, but also the Indian community, which should be aware of reports about an economic downturn in India and some divisive moves by the government.

One remaining anxiety is that India's embrace of the United States will have international repercussions, especially in China and Russia. This is an aspect that PM Modi had realised in 2016, which led him to reset relations with the US, China and Russia.

His meeting with Vladimir Putin has already laid the foundations for building confidence with Russia and he may do the same when Chinese President Xi visits India next fortnight.

As the Houston event ended, all fears in the minds of well-wishers about the encounter were removed, much to our relief. Either the prayers have been answered or the chemistry between the two leaders were such that nothing went wrong.

No formal announcements were made, but the statements on terrorism, trade and immigration are game changing phrases. Misgivings about 'Howdy Modi' have disappeared and the sceptics are disappointed.

Friends of PM Modi will continue to pray for the present trends to continue while his foes will look for any faltering steps later this week when a number of sensitive issues come up for consideration.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA is the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

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