All pomp, little to show : The Tribune India

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All pomp, little to show

Prime MINISTER Narendra Modi spent a week in the US at the end of September.

All pomp, little to show

One-sided: ‘Friendship’ with President Trump did not yield the desired results.

Manoj Joshi 
Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Prime MINISTER Narendra Modi spent a week in the US at the end of September. Ostensibly, the visit was to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, but fresh from his election victory and his Article 370 ‘surgical strike’ on Jammu & Kashmir, he decided to make it a larger exercise of displaying India to the world.

The most theatrical feature of the visit was the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston. This was a strategy trade-marked by Modi in 2014, when he participated in a major rally at the Madison Square Garden stadium in New York. The loud political rally generated considerable attention in Washington DC by the time Modi arrived for his official visit. This was a riposte of sorts to the US for denying him a visa for more than a decade before.

This time around, fresh from his sweep in the General Election, Modi was in the capital of the Indian diaspora, Houston, and not only spoke to a larger and adoring audience of NRIs, but also had roped in the POTUS himself for the tamasha.

Houston was about messaging. Both leaders were talking politics to different audiences—Modi to the millions who would have been watching the wall-to-wall TV coverage back home. And Trump electioneering with a category of voters who had overwhelmingly voted Democratic the last time around. There was nothing more, though, than the glitz, as became evident as the week unfolded.   

Importantly, Modi was not able to strike a trade deal with the US. For some time now, Trump has been raising the issue of the trade imbalance with India, and in May, Washington revoked the benefits India was getting under the GSP. In July, Trump himself weighed in when he tweeted, ‘India has long had a field day putting tariffs on American products. No longer acceptable!’

There has been brave talk by people like Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal that India wants to build up export competitiveness, rather than depend on the GSP. But in troubled times such as these, the $6.4 billion benefit to Indian exporters is not insignificant. Expectations that his over-the-top ‘friendship’ with Trump would help persuade the US to back off were belied. Modi couldn’t even manage a waiver of the March 2018 duties the US placed on national security grounds on Indian aluminum and steel, several countries, though, have managed to get exemptions.

The Prime Minister did hold a glitzy roundtable with US CEOs and business leaders in Houston and New York, but the net result was the lone, and somewhat controversial, MoU between Petronet and the American oil and gas major, Tellurian. American majors do not seem to be too interested in investing in India, given the quirky ways of the government.

The most important context of the US tour was the Jammu & Kashmir issue. After the unprecedented informal meeting of the UN Security Council in August, there were worries about how it would play out in the UNGA.

India was on the offensive from the outset, when in Houston Modi attacked those who had ‘put their hatred of India at the centre of their political agenda’ and those who supported terrorism and ‘who nurture terrorism’. The time had come to ‘fight a decisive battle against terrorism and against all the people who promote terrorism,’ he said, and sought to draw Trump into the battle.   

But Trump was evasive. He did denounce the threat of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ to applause from the audience. But later he clarified that he was thinking more about Iran, than Pakistan.

Modi largely stuck to the high road in his remarks at the UNGA, but he couldn’t resist returning to the issue of terrorism, which he said somewhat floridly, was a challenge to ‘the entire world and humanity’.

World leaders would have been bemused about the messaging here from someone who had just referred to Buddha’s message of peace. At a time when the world community was fixated on global warming, the Indian PM appeared not to want to let go of his primary electoral weapon—attacking Pakistan/Muslims on account of terrorism.

Despite efforts, the J&K issue has grabbed the attention of the world community. Beyond disclaimers by the administration, Trump remains fixated on his role as a mediator, most recently articulated before his meeting with Imran Khan in New York last week. Meanwhile, the US has also let it be known that its relatively benign attitude is conditional on India being able to rapidly lift the restrictions and release those who have been detained in the state.

That Kashmir has been internationalised because of the government’s ill-considered actions is apparent from the ambiguous position of the US, the stand of the UK Labour Party,  and the full-fledged support being given to Pakistan by Malaysia and Turkey. This may not mean much at present. But it is a needless distraction for a country that should be focusing on its economic growth and whose economy is in a difficult place. So, despite the self-praise and hype generated by a friendly media, the outcome of the US tour was, as they say, mixed. Neither the NRIs nor the CEOs or Trump himself have been persuaded to do something, except mouth nice words about India.

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