SEEMA MUSTAFA | 23 SEPTEMBER, 2019
The Take-Away From Houston
A moment in time
It was a spectacular event. But by now we are used to the one inalienable fact that whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi does is larger than life. At least where he is openly and directly involved such as this Houston event, and we can wait without bated breath for more to follow at the United Nations General Assembly. Perfectly choreographed, down to the last T, with the coup d’etat in terms of troll happiness coming from the walk around the stadium - PM Modi and United States President Donald Trump hand in hand.
By the end of the event Trump ---hunting for diaspora votes and donors for the presidential polls around the corner--- had dissolved into putty. Willing to be led by Modi anywhere he wanted to take him. Clearly overwhelmed and excited about the huge support for the Indian Prime Minister, Trump gave up on Pakistan (and possibly Afghanistan) and instead pandered to diaspora sentiment with his statements on radical Islamic extremism, and illegal migration. Pakistan of course was the common factor in both his and Modi’s references to terrorism, with illegal migration being Trump’s Mexico and Modi’s Bangladesh.
It was a huge success for Modi, as he first took on Pakistan while Trump with his line of Congress members sat and heard him out. And went on to raise Kashmir and Article 370, saying to resounding applause that it had come in the way of the development of Jammu and Kashmir even as it protected and nurtured terrorists and their mentors. It was clear that there was not a word amiss here insofar as Trump was concerned, and that human rights ---worrying sections of the US Congress that will be discussing the issue soon--- were certainly not a factor for the US President. At least not when he was looking into the eyes of 50,000 delirious diaspora voters, with Modi making a huge pitch for him. Warming to the theme Trump assured the cheering audience that they and India will never have a friend like “Donald Trump” in the US. That this comes in the wake of survey reports that the Indian-Americans were looking more at Joe Biden for President makes it very understandable, as now the race is for funding and votes.
Modi and his foreign policy team have understood Trump’s desperation to win the elections, and diplomatically exploited it in what some might say is to the advantage of both. But then politics like history takes time to play out, and there is still a chasm betwixt the cup and the lip.
What was clear from Houston is the following:
1. Trump needs Modi now, as Modi does Trump. It is a real relationship now with the former looking for electoral support, and the latter for endorsement and hence the space to carry on his government and party’s political agenda at home. It is perhaps, in that sense more equal than it was in the past with Trump almost talking down to his Indian colleague despite the hugs and handshakes. There was an attitudinal difference at the Houston rally that would have counted for a lot had Trump not been in his election year.
2, There is going to be no reversal on Kashmir. At least that is not the way Modi is currently looking at it. He is going to use international platforms to garner opinion for his government's moves in Kashmir, succeeding really in delinking the human rights situation from the abrogation of Articles 35A and 370 and the change of status of the state, as if one has nothing to do with the other. He declared in the presence of the US President and his Congressmen and women that the Articles had come in the way of the state's development, that all that was available to other citizens of India would now be for the Kashmiris, and that the Articles had really only helped terrorists and their mentors and supporters.
3. The standing applause in the stadium would have cleared the last vestiges of doubt in Trump’s mind, or at least convinced him that a rebuttal at any time might cost him the Indian-American vote. Besides, as Modi pointed out, the two Houses of Parliament ---and one where his party did not have a majority--- passed the government’s amendments with a full two thirds majority.
4. It also appears that Modi has got Trump's support on the government’s citizenship verification program which his Home Minister Amit Shah has declared several times will be spread across India to detect each and every illegal migrant. States like Maharashtra have already identified land for detention centres, and construction of the same is in full swing in Assam. The UN warning that persons should not be made stateless has elicited no response, with Trump’s support clearly far more valuable for New Delhi in its tasks ahead.
The applause on working together against radical Islamic extremism must have convinced a Trump that he has a huge banks of voters and donors amongst Indian-Americans so long as he sticks to the two themes popular with the ‘rockstar’ PM in India. That Modi went on to point fingers at Pakistan in the presence of Trump is further indication of the marginalisation of the neighbour that can bring little to Trump’s table now.
But then there is more to follow. And more that did happen albeit on the sidelines of the Houston stadium. One, there were some protests for Kashmir and the suspension of democratic rights but few details are available except on the social media. The Indian media has blacked out the Houston street but that it did make its presence felt is indicative from the social media response.
Secondly, and the indication for this came from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, New Delhi might have put all its eggs in one political basket that is diplomatically not seen as being prudent. More so when elections are around the corner and promise to be hard fought.
Sanders in an article in the Houston Chronicle to coincide with the event wrote:
“When President Trump meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, we will hear much about the friendship between the American and Indian people. However, there will be a deafening silence when it comes to a human rights crisis unfolding right before our eyes — and that is unacceptable.
The Modi-Trump rally is happening at a moment when the state of Kashmir remains under lockdown. In early August, Modi’s government unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s long standing autonomy, has cracked down on dissent, jailed political leaders and instituted a communications blackout.
The lockdown has also blocked Kashmiris’ access to basic medical care. In a letter in the British Medical Journal on Aug. 16, a group of doctors from across India asked their government to ease restrictions on communication and travel, saying they were “a blatant denial of the right to health care and the right to life” because they made it difficult for patients and staff to get to hospitals. A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that, “From chemotherapy to dialysis, patients are struggling to access lifesaving treatment on time.”
President Trump has voiced no criticism of these troubling moves. He should be demanding that these restrictions be lifted and communications be restored immediately.” And:
“All over the world, we have witnessed the rise of intolerant, authoritarian political leaders who are attacking the very foundations of democratic societies. In an age of massive global wealth inequality and economic anxiety, these demagogues exploit people’s pain and fears by amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and fanning ethnic and racial hatreds to maintain power. Instead of holding the wealthy and powerful accountable, they scapegoat the weak and the powerless.
Unlike our current president who has an apparent affection for authoritarian regimes, I will make the promotion of democracy and human rights a priority for the United States. I know that when a president stays silent in the face of religious persecution, repression and brutality, the dangerous message this sends to autocratic leaders around the world is: “Go ahead, you can get away with it.”
Former Ambassador M.K.Bhadrakumar has pointed out that Howdy Modi might boomerang as the PM should not have joined Trump’s “ploy to poach into Democrats' traditional base among Indian-Americans. Let NRIs decide on their own. Besides, in this idiotic effort to finesse Trump's outlook on J&K, Howdy Modi ended up highlighting Modi government's Achilles heel - Kashmir - and making K the 'objective correlative' for the anti-Trump camp. Now, what happens if Trump doesn't win in 2020 (which increasingly seems the possibility)?”
Sanders is the Democratic presidential candidate with a counter narrative, and hence has not hesitated to hit out on the issue of human rights. This is not a small intervention but comes from a candidate of the major opposition party in the US. Joe Biden, seemingly the Democrats' favourite right now, is more cautious and refrained from speaking on Kashmir and human rights. But he along with the others will not take well to the Houston event where the Indian PM came out batting for Trump's re-election. Unlike in India, both the opposition and the media in the US are vocal and influential, and not to be taken in by Trump histrionics.
So no doubt the Houston moment went to Modi and Trump, but then this is only the beginning.