‘Howdy Modi’ Delivers Pomp, but Little Policy
Five years after he spoke to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi managed to outdo himself with a recent rally in Houston, Texas. The event billed as “Howdy Modi,” managed to attract an audience of nearly 50,000 people, compared to the 19,000 that attended the Madison Square Garden event during Modi’s first term as prime minister.
Speaking alongside President Trump, Modi’s energy demonstrated his communicative prowess, the same skill that enabled his Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to pull off an unexpected second electoral rout in last April’s elections, increasing the party’s control of parliament. In his speech, Modi heralded the partnership between his government and the Trump administration, lauding the latter for its “commitment to fight terrorism” and “a strong resolve to make America great again.” For his part, President Trump praised Modi’s leadership and describes his progress as “a truly exceptional job for India.”
Such rhetoric straddles the contours of congenial diplomacy and explicit endorsement. Trump’s acceptance of Modi’s invitation to the event is in part a response to the GOP’s renewed focus on Texas voters. Though traditionally thought of as a Republican stronghold, Texas’ evolving demographics, particularly in racial composition, presents a challenge to the GOP’s dominance in the state. The “Texodus” phenomenon, as it’s known, has triggered a Republican effort to court minority voters. Thus, the opportunity for Trump to woo the crowd of mostly Indian Americans represents a broader strategy to curtail Texas from reaching battleground status.
Though Indian Americans have principally sympathized with the Democratic Party, specific policy messaging by the GOP could result in successful outreach to the diaspora. The lure of tax cuts, for example, coupled with hints at a meritocratic immigration system, could prove successful in winning over Indian Americans, who are often cited as the wealthiest minority group in the United States.
For his part, Narendra Modi’s outreach to the Indian American community transcends shared culture and soft power export. Non-resident Indians (NRIs) contributed nearly $80 billion in remittances last year, representing 2.7% of India’s GDP and making India the top recipient of remittances in the world. Furthermore, foreign investment remains a priority for the BJP’s economic agenda, with a diaspora representing a potential source to shore up the country’s waning economic growth.
In addition, Modi’s speech marked the first time the prime minister discussed the issue of Kashmir since the Indian government’s abrogation of the disputed territory’s autonomous status. During his speech, Modi made an implicit reference to Pakistan as the common denominator between the 9/11 attacks in the US and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, a reference that drew considerable applause from the crowd. In spite of Pakistan’s best efforts to internationalize the Kashmir issue, Trump’s appearance at the Houston rally signals that the momentum remains with Modi and that any effort to establish the United States as a mediator on the subject is likely to falter.
Modi’s countercriticism of Pakistan is a volley that shifts attention toward Pakistan’s relationship, and alleged support, of varied Islamic terror groups. To the chagrin of Pakistan, these efforts were further buoyed by the cancellation of US-Taliban peace talks, a relationship that has historically involved Pakistan as a middleman.
As for the bilateral ties between the US and India, the relationship remains primarily driven by defense and security cooperation. As the second-largest arms importer in the world, India has become a boon for America’s defense sector, with an estimated $18 billion in bilateral defense trade.
Furthermore, the US Department of Defense’s publication of the Indo-Pacific Strategy report, released last June, describes the Indo-Pacific region as the priority theater in the face of China’s attempt to “reorder the region to its advantage.” America’s renewed focus on great power politics represents an opportunity to further bolster US-Indo defense ties, in the form of trade and in cooperative military exercises.
Yet, such ambitions remain constrained by existing obstacles. India’s close defense ties with Russia, and its’ decision to purchase the vaunted Russian S-400 missile defense system will likely preclude the sourcing of more advanced US defense technology. Furthermore, transitioning the Indo-Pacific Strategy from a hypothetical concept to concrete policy will require buy-in from several Southeast Asian states, who remain reluctant to choose between American or Chinese hegemony.
With the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy in the backdrop, ‘Howdy Modi’ provided India’s prime minister with the opportunity to project his popularity and influence while sharing the stage with an American president. Though both leaders differ widely in their personal backgrounds and their political trajectories, similarities exist in their campaign methods and their worldview. Modi’s brand of nationalist, majoritarian politics predate, and largely mirror, the similar populist tendencies that enabled Trump’s ascension to the White House. Furthermore, both leaders express similar sentiments in the areas of economic protectionism, illegal immigration, and jingoistic foreign policy. Such conditions suggest that events like “Howdy Modi” more aptly describe the state of Trump-Modi ties, as opposed to the relationship between the United States and India.