Modi's success in US does not make him a statesman

Modi's English-speaking skills have improved, though he still has a heavy Gujarati accent.

By Rahul Singh

Published: Tue 24 Sep 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 24 Sep 2019, 11:20 PM

Hats off to Narendra Modi. He has managed to do something no Indian prime minister has done before: to get a serving US president to attend a massive rally of Indian-Americans in Houston, Texas. It is a veritable coup. Called Howdy Modi, in typical Texan style (it rhymes as well), the rally attracted over 50,000 Modi-supporters - thousands more had to be turned away - which testifies to the Indian prime minister's huge popularity and mass appeal, especially with the Indian diaspora. And to think that not so long ago, there was a ten-year American visa ban on him for his alleged role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat! His image in the US has certainly undergone a radical make-over, ever since his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was first elected to power in 2014. With an even more spectacular victory in the recent general election in India, thanks mainly due to Modi's charisma and unerring political instinct, he has now become unassailable.
What was missing was Modi's stature outside India, especially in relation to the US. After many trips abroad, he has made good of this deficiency. He clearly wants not only to be recognised as a great Indian prime minister, but also as a respected international statesman, in the mould of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. Modi's English-speaking skills have improved, though he still has a heavy Gujarati accent. The suave Oxford University-educated Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan scores over him in that respect. He speaks in perfectly accented English. He, too, is trying hard to improve his nation's ties with the US, earlier a close ally. Indeed, following Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947, Pakistan even had a military pact with the US, while India went closer to the then Soviet Union.
Two major events disrupted these relationships: The break-up of the Soviet Union, and the onset of terrorism, symbolised most graphically by the attack on New York's World Trade Centre, followed by the terror attack on India's commercial capital city, Mumbai. Pakistan became one of the epicentres of international terrorism, even though, ironically, as Pakistan's leaders often point out, Pakistan itself has also been targeted by terrorists. Nevertheless, the main brain behind the New York attack, Osama bin Laden, was found and eliminated in Pakistan, where he had taken refuge.
Be that as it may, what is intriguing is the changing equation between Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Imran Khan. Initially, the US president roundly castigated Islamabad, accusing it of misusing the considerable military and other aid that it had been receiving from the US, and not doing enough to combat terrorism. Right from the start of his prime ministership Imran Khan decided to use his famed charm to change Trump's impression of Pakistan. And he succeeded. Their words and body language, when they have met, suggest that. Trump even told Khan that Modi had asked him to "mediate" in the Kashmir dispute and that he would be happy to do so (New Delhi immediately issued a denial). Anyway, Trump did not pursue this angle, though Imran Khan must have been pleased that he had got the US president on his side, at least on the Kashmir issue. Clearly, advantage Imran Khan.
However, the Howdy Modi rally has swung the pendulum back in Modi's favour. The presence of the US President, along with the Mayor of Houston, several Congressmen, and the two Senators from Texas, was not just to felicitate Modi. It was also with the US Presidential election, due November 2020, in mind. Though the three million Indian-Americans constitute only one per cent of the total population of the US, they are prosperous and influential. They constitute an important political lobby. Trump, and his Republican Party, want their support. In fact, at the rally, Modi openly declared where his sentiments lay, when he said, Ek aur bar, Trump sarkar (next time again, a Trump administration), echoing his own supporters' slogan in the last general election: Ek aur bar, Modi sarkar. 
The success of the Houston rally apart, Modi faces three main challenges. One, to get his country's floundering economy moving ahead again. India's GDP growth rate is an abysmal five per cent and the unemployment figure the highest in four decades. Two, getting Kashmir and Kashmiris, who have felt alienated, back into the Indian mainstream. Following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave Kashmir a special status, the state is virtually in suspended animation, with hundreds of opposition leaders in jail and a communication-shutdown, including the internet. India, and the world at large, is watching closely at what will happen when normalcy is restored.
The third and perhaps most daunting challenge is in Afghanistan, a country wrecked by civil war and much bloodshed during the past several decades. First, Soviet troops invaded it. They were thrown out, and the Taleban took over. Then, the Americans came in after the New York terror attack and took on the Taleban. Trump is now in the process of pulling US troops out, which is one of his main election pledges, leaving only a token force behind to help the Afghan army. The nightmare scenario would be a political vacuum, into which India and Pakistan are bound to be sucked in, one way or another. Howdy Modi could become Adios Modi.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times

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