Anyone who had listened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he talked to a largely Indian audience in Houston’s "Howdy, Modi!" event on 22 September would have gotten the impression that he was speaking to voters back home as he listed the social and economic achievements of his first term. With two major state elections coming up in just about a month – Maharashtra and Haryana go to the polls on 21 October – they would not be wrong either. His expansive speeches will be played and replayed all through the election campaign.
However, to presume that the speech was all about voters back home would be a reductionist idea. At least as important a purpose was to demonstrate India’s growing clout, both at home and even in the US. The presence of President Donald Trump, two senators from Texas, a US state Governor and several Congressmen and women from across the Red-Blue political divide in the US, attests to the need for US politicians to now court the Indian-American vote in the constituencies where they are in large numbers – Texas being one of them.
Which Indian politician from any party, from Jawaharlal Nehru down to Indira Gandhi or even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, could manage to send this powerful message to US politicians in the past? This is Modi’s single achievement, and no matter what the critics say, it is a huge gain for India, our soft and hard power. We may not have arrived, but the announcement of our impending arrival has been made.
The world does not recognise weak powers as valuable. Until recently, Indian leaders could be fobbed off with a few words of praise – “ancient civilisation”, “world’s largest democracy”, et al – and photo-ops, with little to show for their US trips. When it came to policy change, the US establishment remained determinedly in the grip of pro-Pakistani lobbies in the flawed belief that it was vital to US interests in West Asia and the Muslim world. Even in the commercial sphere, India was merely seen as a vast market for US companies, not as a source of investment for the US economy itself.
At Houston, Modi played the same game in reverse – by praising Trump and other Texan politicians. He called Trump a “tough negotiator” from who he is learning the “art of the deal” – the title of a book written by Trump. He complimented Texan politicians, including the mayor of Houston, for helping organise the event even though the state had suffered huge damage in the recent floods.
Modi laid it on a bit thick when he said. “I admire him (Donald Trump) for…his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in the American future, and a strong resolve to make America great again. He has already made the American economy strong again. He has achieved much for the US and for the world.” He added something that can only be seen as an election endorsement for Trump, who faces a difficult re-election bid in 2020. “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar”.
He also played to Trump’s themes of border security and fight against “terrorism”. While Modi made a pointed reference to Pakistan as the epicentre of the 9/11 and 26/11 terror attacks, Trump made no bones about the fact that “India and America will together fight radical Islamic terrorism” and expand defence cooperation. He is quoted as saying: “In November, the US and India will demonstrate tremendous progress of our defence relationship, holding the first-ever tri-service military exercise between the two nations. We are committed to protecting Indian-Americans from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.”
This mention of “radical Islamic terrorism” is not something Indian or US mainstream politicians will ever make, but Trump scored big with the Houston crowd of over 50,000 Indian-Americans by underlining the religious nature of the kind of terrorism the two countries face. It will go down well with Modi’s political base.
But economics is clearly what underpins the new US-India dalliance. The Modi government’s announcement of the largest corporate tax cut in Indian history – which will cost the exchequer all of Rs 1.45 lakh crore – just a few days ago could not have been just a happy coincidence. A pre-arranged meeting with US energy oil CEOs set the tone for a fresh wooing of US Inc to India at a time when US-China relations are souring and global supply chains are seeking to relocate to cheaper countries.
Modi’s visit enabled energy-related deals with US companies – energy is Texas’ key economic interest – by getting Petronet LNG to not only invest $2.5 billion in a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in Louisiana, but also purchase five million tonnes annually for 40 years from Tellurian.
This sent a simple message to Texan and US politicians: we can invest big in creating jobs here. But Modi also dangled a carrot to emphasise the reverse: the attraction of India as a data market to beat all data markets. Pointing out that India had the lowest data costs in the world (around 25 pence per GB), he talked about “data as the new oil”, “the new gold”. He was clearly telling the US politicians assembled to hear his speech that India is where they can get both the new oil and the new gold if they want their tech giants to succeed.
He indirectly implied that while oil and gold were old forms of wealth, the new oil and gold rush should be about technology and data, and this means tech needs to be in India and not just in Silicon Valley.
India and the US are currently wrestling over India’s fiat to tech giants to localise all their Indian data in the country. But by dangling the carrot of allowing tech giants to operate freely in the world’s largest data market, he also indirectly told US politicians that there must be give-and-take in business deals.
There is little doubt that Modi has – despite a prickly relationship over Donald Trump’s protectionist threats – made a strong pitch for a new India-US alliance that goes beyond just business or politics. We will know whether he has succeeded or not in a few years’ time. But ‘Howdy Modi!’ is a thumping success.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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