Washington: US President Donald Trump, who until yesterday was trying to “help”, “mediate” and otherwise intervene on Kashmir, may be a surprise guest at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally for Indian Americans in Houston.
The stage is set for this unprecedented political “joint venture”. The idea is to announce a US-India trade deal at the same time, or a little before, with Modi and Trump celebrating together on September 22 at the “community summit” of Indian Americans.
The official announcement about Trump’s attendance is expected soon, well-informed sources told The Wire. But they cautioned that things could go awry at the last minute given the way Trump rolls.
So far, however, it’s all systems go.
Trump and Modi’s political managers have apparently been in touch since the two leaders met in Biarritz, France on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit on August 26 and came up with the idea. Modi reportedly promised to buy more oil and weapons from the US – the kind of promise that makes Trump smile. And Trump agreed in principle to attend Modi’s rally.
It’s pure politics for both leaders. Trump has his eyes on the votes of nearly 50,000 Indian Americans who are expected to attend the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally, and Modi has his eyes on walking hand-in-hand with the “leader of the free world” who seems to have ended his temporary flirtation with Pakistan.
If all goes well, Modi and Trump will both walk away smiling. Two quintessential showmen will be on stage together feeding each other’s needs. And egos.
The organisers are in a tizzy not only because of the nightmarish logistics of managing the smooth arrival and departure of the two big men – they don’t know what the sequence of events would be. To say nothing of the 10,000 protesters Pakistan has vowed to collect outside the NRG Stadium in Houston to disrupt the show.
Would Trump come in first and meet and greet the audience while, heavens forbid, Modi stands and watches? Or would Modi give his speech – easily a long 90 minutes – while Trump listens on headphones? Or would Trump leave before Modi goes into speech mode? Who will dictate?
Some are hoping for “divine intervention” to help figure things out. When an appearance by the US president is involved, the US Secret Service has the last say and they set the rules of entry and exit.
The Indian side also reckons the secret service presence might ensure the protesters are forced to a distant spot and out of vision.
So what’s behind this wild idea? It could be argued that Modi would be helping Trump to sway some of the Indian American votes his way. Trump faces a tough re-election in 2020 with at least two Republicans who have vowed to challenge the incumbent.
The nearly 3.2 million Indian Americans constitute the richest ethnic group in the United States, with a median income of $110,000, according to the US Census Bureau figures for 2016. They are also the most highly educated cohort, and their political muscle has grown steadily.
Although Indian Americans mostly lean towards the Democratic Party, Trump has been courting them since 2016 when he became the first presidential candidate to appear at an Indian American event in New Jersey. He vowed to be India’s “best friend.”
But Trump would also be helping Modi, whose recent decision to void the special status of Jammu and Kashmir created a huge controversy both at home and abroad. By appearing at Modi’s side, Trump would essentially be sending the message – the larger US-India relationship is too big to be derailed by Kashmir.
For Modi, then, it would be a PR coup.
The Indian government has been on the defensive since August 5 when New Delhi decided to abrogate provisions of Article 370 and put what are now two Union territories under curfew and a security blanket.
On its part, Pakistan launched a virulent campaign against India in key capitals, in the media and at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan compared Modi and the RSS to Hitler and Nazism and vowed to fight for Kashmir until the last day – whatever that means.
It’s another matter that Pakistan has found no traction with world leaders who basically have accepted Modi’s moves on Kashmir as India’s “internal matter”, even if their bureaucracies, including the US State Department, have, however, registered a certain level of discomfort about the human rights situation and the communication blackout in Kashmir.
Members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the US House of Representatives are especially agitated. They have written letters to the White House and the State Department, asking the executive branch to press India to restore cell phone service and release political leaders. Many have taken to Twitter to criticise India.
As for a US-India trade deal that Modi and Trump are expected to celebrate in Houston, both sides are hammering out the details before Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal arrives in the US on September 19 to meet United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and put the final touches.
It appears that India has asked the US restore GSP privileges for starters, while the US has asked for more market access for agriculture products.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.