India-US yearender: Howdy Modi dominated narrative, not the outcome | Opinion

More than anything else, year 2019 will be remembered by policy wonks and the public for a joint-outreach to the Indian diaspora by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump, with a crowd-size that the American leader continues to marvel at to this day, impressed and, perhaps, a little envious.
US President Donald Trump participates in the "Howdy Modi" event with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas, US.(Photo: Reuters)
US President Donald Trump participates in the "Howdy Modi" event with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas, US.(Photo: Reuters)
Updated on Dec 28, 2019 10:16 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Washington | ByYashwant Raj

It was a year when trade tensions between India and the United States came to a head. And it was also a year President Donald Trump stoked India’s sensitivity on the Kashmir issue with his repeated offers to mediate, and it was also a year that ended with testy showdown precipitated by a lawmaker of Indian descent.

More than anything else, year 2019 will be remembered by policy wonks and the public for a joint-outreach to the Indian diaspora by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump, with a crowd-size that the American leader continues to marvel at to this day, impressed and, perhaps, a little envious.

The image of the two leaders — one of them a prickly germophobe who loathes unwanted physical contact (President Trump) — walking hand in hand around the arena, with aides and security personnel struggling to keep up with, and more than 50,000 people cheering was made for history.

And it was. The HowdyModi event — as it was called, with not as much as a tiny nod to the American president — was a milestone in relations between the two countries that could became the gold standard for the relationship, along with the 2008 India-US civil nuclear deal. It mattered even more, perhaps, to Indian Americans. “This is historic,” M Ramaswami,a former tech-titan who has since founded an advocacy group called Indiaspora, had said then. “Trump’s presence here mainstreams the Indian community, sends all sorts of signals in all directions.”

Trade tensions in a tailspin

Year 2019 started badly. Ties were flung into a crisis in January by the apprehension of more than 600 Indian students of a fake US university set up by authorities to bust a pay-to-stay scam of people entering the United States, or extending their stay, by enrolling as students. India angrily slammed the use of a fake university as “entrapment”, which is not allowed in India, but worked quietly to enable the students to go home. “We dropped everything else,” said an Indian diplomat closely associated with these efforts.

Pulwama consensus

The sense of panic and despair that hit bilateral ties — marked by some testy exchanges between officials of the two countries over entrapment — was dissipated a fortnight later by unequivocal US support after the February 14 terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed 40 CRPF personnel. The United States threw its full weight behind a French proposal for the UNSC’s 1267 sanctions committee to designate the founder-leader of the Pakistan-based terrorists outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad that had claimed credit for the attack, to quash another attempt by China to kill it by threatening to call a full and open meeting of the Security Council to expose Beijing’s egregious defense of a terrorist mastermind.

Trade tensions, GSP gone

Tensions over trade, in the meantime, were escalating rapidly, feeding on festering unresolved issues going back several years and on President Trump’s avowed goal to end America’s trade imbalances by weaponizing tariff. Failing to get access to India’s dairy and medical-devices sectors, the Trump administration announced in March its intention to terminate India’s access to a US trade programme designed to help developing economies — called the Generalized System of Preferences — with zero import duty. But it held off the announcement till May at the request of the Modi government. India has been the top beneficiary of this scheme, with $6.3 billion of the total of $54.3 billion in total goods exports in 2018 — 9%.

Defense ties on course

Defense ties continued on the upswing un-disrupted though. The growing convergence and interoperability between the militaries of the countries received a significant boost with the signing of the Industrial Security Annex, a foundational agreement that allows US private sector manufacturers of defense material to share confidential and proprietary information with private sector partners in India. The two sides also concluded three agreements under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative and agreed to hold annually a bilateral tri-services military exercise that first took place in November called “Tiger Triumph”.

Kashmir and CAA

The second 2+2 ministerial dialogue, which concluded December 18 and delivered these pathbreaking defense outcomes, was also marked by growing skepticism and suspicion of the Modi government among the young and emerging leaders of the progressive caucus of the Democratic party on human rights issues concerning the situation in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 and the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act specifically, and religious freedom generally. Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-American Democratic lawmaker from Washington state, who has been most vocal. An Indian diplomat acknowledged this group as an emerging challenge but expressed confidence in the continued support of the party’s leaders: Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the chief guest at the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, and Steny Hoyer, the Number 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, was the senior-most Democrat at the HowdyModi event.

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