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Modi’s diplomatic slip in Houston

A diplomatic slip of astronomical proportions

Comment by Dinesh Malhotra

With the latest edition of Modi’s Stadium rallies in Houston in the US, people have hailed him as an international statesman and a world leader. Particularly so because he took a ‘victory lap of the stadium holding the hand of the most powerful person on this planet – the president of the United States of America. He did in fact look and behaved like a world leader.

How far have we come, I wondered watching Narendra Modi in Houston. This is the same man – who was banned from entering the US and refused Visa for allegations of violence against minorities in his then state of Gujarat where he was the Chief Minister then. A lot of water has gone under the bridge and the world has moved on, both for Modi and India.

The diaspora abroad just simply love him and cannot have enough of him. And he reciprocates absolutely lovingly and does not seem to miss any opportunity to address “Modi Bhagats”. Be it New Yorks’ Madison Square or Sydney’s All Phones Arena or now in Houston, when thousands of “devotees” of Modi congregate – Modi is totally home. Back in India also, he loves addressing rallies and is always at ease – may not be as comfortable doing individual – one-on-one interviews – and flourishes in such scenarios. Houston offered him his ideal setting, and he made the most of it.

Although his speech in Houston and the US visit was well received the world over, his minders have to be careful as he is in danger of being stereotyped as a leader who loves stadia full of sycophantic followers.

The question is – is it always possible to set the stage like Houston?

And then – who spends all the money?

Is it the BJP or the Indian tax payer?

The other problem which seems to be creeping in – for the BJP – that the party is fast becoming like the Congress – being controlled by the Big Two at the top – NaMo and Amit Shah. With Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj having passed away, there seems to be a dearth of courage and talent in the BJP tent and sooner or later the air is going to become hot. Remember the old saying ‘In politics, a day is a long time’.

The other issue with this style of leadership rallies is – these can stir up conflict in the host country of the diaspora and thus cause problems of internal stability. NaMo’s visit was benign and it was all okay for President Donald Trump to heap praise on Madi and hold his hand for the victory lap – purely because the Indian community (diaspora) in Houston is loaded and very strong. But the Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had also arrived in the US at the same time and their ‘muffled’ protests for and on behalf of the Kashmiris did not cut much ice. What if Houston’s  Pakistani community was also strong and planned to hold a similar ‘Howdy Imran’ rally in parallel to Modi’s and their respective followers clashed in the streets?

The only reason that did not happen was that the Indian community is much stronger and has been throwing its weight around – playing important role in Indio-Us bilateral relations. They act as India’s strategic assets. They acted as mediators and facilitators for improving ties between India and the US. In 1999, the Indian diaspora in the US played an important role in the withdrawal of the Burton Amendment which sought to cut US aid to India by 25 per cent over its treatment of minorities and human rights record in Kashmir.

In 2008, it played a significant role in the smooth passage of the India-US Nuclear Agreement.

A new Modi and new euphoria
Readers will know, it was not always so. In the early 1990s, the Pakistan lobby dominated Capitol Hill. As mentioned earlier – remember Modi being refused visa to visit the US?

A particular mention is needed for Modi’s comment “Ab Ke bar, Trump sarkar” and the accolades he received for saying that. There was a lot of discussion on the Indian TV channels about that and his supporters and BJP spokespersons endeavoured to camouflage this huge diplomatic blunder by saying, Modi did not say – “Phir ek bar Trump Sarkar” – meaning Modi was not doing campaigning for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.

The question is – why did he incorporate “Ab Ke bar, Trump sarkar” comment in his speech. The speech, as such speeches are, was well rehearsed and prepared well before Modi leaving India and would have been checked and re-checked before being okayed for Modi to use. It was a total waste of effort for anyone to justify that inclusion. Modi (and his minders) should have known better. In diplomacy, you do not meddle in other country’s domestic politics and maintain relations with all major parties as you may have to deal with the party in opposition at the time of your endorsement of the party in power.

With impeachment hanging over Trump’s head, if the Democrats win in 2020, dealing with the new president from the Democrats on his future visits to the US may be a little awkward. And taking a victory tour of the stadium holding hand of the new US president will be further awkward if not embarrassing.

From any angle, with Modi’s “Ab ke bar Trump sarkar” inclusion, a huge diplomatic slip – Donald Trump – may be a personal, close and favourite friend of Modi (Modi may be mistaken there as well, but that is for another time) – cannot be seen as Modi’s trump card.

After all, it’s Modi’s but India’s future at stake!

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