Donald Trump at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston today, next stop New Delhi
Narendra Modi had, even before he had taken over as Prime Minister of India in 2014, figured it out. He would take on the world of diplomacy on his own terms and not just go by briefings by South Block mandarins about protocols, niceties or even diplomacy. Modi did get Ajit Doval, who took over as National Security Adviser soon after, to send invites to leaders of countries in the neighbourhood including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif for his grand swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt. And they were there.
The neighbourhood has been important in PM Modi’s worldview but it has been strengthening ties with the United States that has consistently been on the top of his government’s agenda. This was made amply clear by PM Modi to S Jaishankar, then Indian Ambassador to the US in 2014. This was the context of PM Modi’s first visit to the United States in September 2014 when he demonstrated his standing with the Indian diaspora at Madison Square Garden. But if the New York event was to show-case the political clout of the Indian diaspora, the Howdy Modi event in Texas’ Houston is a projection of India’s image of a rising global economic power, and a fair competitor to China.
It is therefore now no surprise that PM Modi chose to cut corporate tax rates to make Indian companies globally competitive on the eve of his address at the Indian diaspora along with US President Donald Trump at the global energy hub of Houston. This joint appearance is seen as a precursor to President Donald Trump visit to India, either in December or even as the chief guest at 2020 Republic Day Parade -- five years after Barack Obama was in India at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations.
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The presence of US President Donald Trump at Houston’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event is a stamp of approval on PM Modi’s decisive leadership as well as on the rise of India. The President of the world’s most powerful nation does not go attending sundry diaspora events until and unless there is a long term plan in mind.
US President Trump’s presence at the event, contrasts sharply with how Indian diplomats would spread themselves thin not so long ago for visits of a US Assistant Secretary of State – the equivalent of a joint secretary rank officer in the Indian government. A visit of US deputy secretary took the cake and Secretary of State was the cherry on the cake. These events, like the visit of Assistant Secretary Robin Raphel, Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott or Richard Armitage and Secretary Colin Powell, were taken as high points in the relations between the two countries by the media with reams written on their body language and calibration of view.
How times have changed for India is evident from US President Trump meeting the Indian Prime Minister twice in three days and chief executive officers of some of the biggest companies agreeing to come for a CEO forum at New York on the condition that they would be able to meet PM Modi for two minutes. This is because PM Modi is upfront and candid on India’s interests and doesn’t hesitate to voice them at the highest table. As some say, he not only has the tact and charm of a Gujarati businessman but also their courage. An eagle eye to see the big picture of India and the globe at 80,000 feet while micro-managing the US relationship to the last detail.
Howdy Modi is also about leveraging the economic and political clout of 3.5 million Indian diaspora in US as also projection of PM Modi as an undisputed leader with a vision for 130 crore Indians.
However, the translation of this vision towards a 5 trillion dollar Indian economy lies in the hands of Delhi diplomats and bureaucracy, who continue to suffer from imperial hangover and obsession with Punjabi Pakistan. With PM Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on pole position of Formula one diplomatic circuit, the mismatch with bureaucracy is the challenge to further cementing of India-US partnership.