Could Modi’s Break With Diplomatic Tradition Help Trump?
For decades, India has studiously made sure it can’t be accused of picking sides in foreign elections. Not anymore.
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It's a high-risk gamble that could work — or backfire — for both Trump and Modi.
The western Indian city of Ahmedabad is getting dressed up for a party unlike any it has seen. Roads near the new Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in the suburb of Motera are being laid afresh. Costing $100 million, it will be the world’s largest cricket arena. Sidewalks have shiny new blocks. And the city civic authority is building a brick barrier to cordon off a slum from visibility for its latest guest, who is known for his love of walls: U.S. President Donald Trump.
Just five months ago, at a Houston event titled “Howdy Modi,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lauded Trump before a cheering crowd of 50,000 Indian Americans for his efforts to “make America great again.” Now, as Trump’s reelection campaign picks up steam, Modi is hosting him on his home turf in the state of Gujarat for a repeat performance. On Monday, the two leaders will address an estimated 125,000 people at the Motera stadium. The event, this time called “Namaste Trump,” is a thinly veiled attempt to woo the 4.5 million-strong and wealthy Indian American community — a third of them of Gujarati origin — to the president’s cause in November.
It’s the latest evidence of a dramatic break from traditional diplomacy for India, which in the past has made sure it can’t be accused of picking favorites in foreign elections, or of influencing voters there. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, often avoided visiting foreign leaders just before their elections.
You don’t have to comment on [the] U.S.’s internal developments. You work with whoever is elected.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Observer Research Foundation
Modi’s image with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though, was plastered on Tel Aviv skyscrapers ahead of that country’s elections last year. After then–Labour Party chief Jeremy Corbyn criticized Modi’s crackdown in Kashmir, the overseas arm of the prime minister’s BJP party campaigned among the British-Indian community to get them to vote for the Conservative Party in the December U.K. elections. And while, officially, India’s foreign office insists Modi hasn’t endorsed Trump for 2020, that’s exactly how the American president’s reelection campaign saw the Indian leader’s comments in Houston, tweeting as much.
It’s unclear just how much the Ahmedabad and Houston rallies will help Trump with Indian American voters. And some experts say Modi’s effective endorsement of Trump is damaging the traditionally bipartisan support that India has enjoyed in Washington.
Yet for Modi, the equation seems simple: At a time his controversial policies at home have drawn increasing global criticism, he’s doubling down on helping friends in major nations get elected or stay in power. And for Trump, “the India visit is an occasion to consolidate the Indian-American vote” for November, says Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi–based think tank.
Modi’s mega rallies in New York, San Jose and Houston have drawn tens of thousands of Indian American supporters. With the shadow of impeachment gone, these “voters of Indian origin are the low-hanging fruit that Trump can rely on,” says Seshadri Chari, a senior member of the BJP’s national executive and a strategic analyst who insists that the prime minister isn’t guilty of any “breach of diplomatic norms or traditions.”
But Indian Americans have historically leaned Democratic. In 2016, only 17 percent voted for Trump. “Modi doesn’t really have any substantial influence among Indian Americans,” says T. P. Sreenivasan, India’s former permanent representative to the U.N.
Nor has Modi always proved a lucky charm. Canada’s Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott both lost despite demonstrative bonhomie with Modi just before elections in their countries, which have significant Indian-origin populations. In fact, Modi might gain from Trump’s public support more than the other way around, argues Sreenivasan. It might help “inflate [Modi’s] influence,” especially among Indian Americans, he says.
But India could lose, says Rajagopalan. A day before the “Howdy Modi” event, Texas Rep. Al Green, a Democrat, withdrew his participation, calling it a photo op for Trump. At the same time, India’s relations with others in the Democratic Party have soured. Current and former 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke have criticized Modi’s actions in Kashmir.
Then in December, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar canceled a meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation after it refused to exclude Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal from the interaction. Jayapal has introduced a resolution in Congress criticizing the clampdown on civil liberties in Kashmir. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also a presidential candidate, hit back against Jaishankar’s decision on Twitter. The episode “broadened the rift that was already there,” says Rajagopalan. “The cancellation … created a larger number of stakeholders in the U.S. Congress who are now critical of India.” India, she says, lost an opportunity to assuage concerns of members of Congress. “My sense is that India didn’t have a good story to tell.”
What’s also potentially worrying for India is that the Democratic candidate its foreign policy establishment knows best — former Vice President Joe Biden — is slipping in the race while Sanders is rising. “That’s something India needs to think about,” says Rajagopalan.
Trump said on Tuesday that a mini trade deal he was hoping to sign during his visit to New Delhi after the Ahmedabad event now looks unlikely. Still, the talks with Modi could bring clarity on a dispute that has hurt the Indian economy. That Trump isn’t visiting India’s archrival Pakistan is also a positive sign for New Delhi, says Rajagopalan. And not everyone thinks Modi has erred. By attending the Houston event with Modi, the U.S. president helped raise the Indian leader’s profile in a way he hasn’t done for any other global peer, says retired Indian diplomat Melkulangara Bhadrakumar. Chari says he doesn’t see the “personal chemistry” between Modi and Trump impacting India’s ties with the Democrats.
But in effectively campaigning for Trump, Modi has crossed a red line those before him observed carefully, say other experts. “You don’t have to comment on [the] U.S.’s internal developments. You work with whoever is elected,” says Rajagopalan. “For a political leader to go and make such a statement was uncalled for.”