“What's up, pardners?”
That famous greeting, used by the cowboys of Texas, may just be the right question to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi or US President Donald Trump, who together staged a grand spectacle at Houston's NRG Stadium on Sunday night.
Beyond the hugs, the cheers, the song and the dance, lies a shrewd mix of domestic politics and international geopolitics.
Both the leaders stand to gain from the posturing in their vote-bank politics, while it can be also be said that the two countries are also carefully laying the ground for economic benefits and superpower politics.
Indian-Americans Aren’t Just Voters, But Financiers of US Politics
Think Pakistan. Think China. Think Iran. Think the UN. Beyond that, think election-funding in the race to Washington. Think Indian-Americans wanting to be more ‘white’ than ‘brown’. This is the ‘Fair & Lovely cream’ of US politics. But mixing domestic politics with edgy global politics is not so easy. The gambit has its risks.
While an array of high-profile American politicians — across race and across the political spectrum (Democrats and Republicans) — lined up on stage to cheer India and Modi on Sunday, what was less visible was that among the cheering members of the audience were wealthy Indian Americans, many of them were probably motel owners of Gujarati origin — happy to see one of their own kind holding hands with the leader of their adopted homeland.
Indian-Americans are not just voters, but financiers of US politics.
Earlier, Indians were counted among the poorer immigrants, but highly-educated doctors, software engineers, financiers, and increasingly — entrepreneurs — are a different lot. The subtle power shift of Indians from the rainbow alliance championed by Democrats, to the power-and-money driven conservative white politics (that is the hallmark of Republicans) is just right for the likes of Trump: they get the funds, they sell the “right kind of immigrant” story.
Indians Are Smart Voters, the Kind Trump Wants to Woo
It is not for nothing that over the years, Indians increasingly see themselves counted not with the Hispanics, but with the Jewish Americans. Both the Grand Old Party and the Democrats find it worth their while to charm the Indians, while Indians like the idea of moving up the US’s social ladder through their political connections.
Being present at a fund-raising dinner or high-profile meeting of a presidential aspirant — be that of Republican Nikki Randhawa Haley, Democrat Kamala Harris, or the incumbent Donald Trump — is a badge to be worn proudly.
The new equations also increasingly help India take away the spotlight from criticism on its Kashmir policy, or to wean away a Rep or a Senator through suitable lobbying by a Congressman or woman from a colour or human rights-centric narrative, to one that emphasizes on investments or H1 B visas. It also helps that an increasing number of Americans of Indian origin are entering mainstream US politics.
Of course, Indians are also smart voters, the kind Trump wants to woo.
Approximately 2.4 million Indian-origin folks are out there. Their median income is above USD 107,000 per annum. Not small.
Why ‘Howdy Modi’ Happened in Houston
Also, the fact that the event happened in Houston is of immense significance. Texas is a traditional bastion of conservative Republican politics, and also calls itself the ‘energy capital’ of the world. The US has pushed out Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer. India's public sector Petronet announced a USD 2.5-billion investment in Louisiana, in the most visible economic punch during Modi's US visit.
What this means in effect is that India, hit by tough US sanctions on Iran (linked to Tehran’s nuclear programme), now buys gas from the US, having stopped buying fuel from Iran.
Questions arise on what this means for India befriending Iran to build a port on its side of Balochistan, and whether New Delhi is a long term gainer or loser by bowing to US pressure. For the moment, it is a nice thing to party, because for India, it means a thumb on the nose to greet Pakistan. For the US, India is an alternative investment spot to show China its place as a manufacturing base, amid a trade dispute that has long-term consequences.
Significance of Sitharaman Announcing Tax Benefits on Eve of Modi’s US Visit
Only the naive would miss the geopolitical significance of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing a slew of tax benefits for new manufacturing units on the eve of Modi's visit to the US, which somewhat drowned amidst the cheers of the stock market welcoming corporate tax cuts on a fabulous Friday. The minister has openly mentioned Apple as a trendsetting investor.
It would not take much imagination to see that Apple Inc is stepping up its presence in India, as Washington fights a trade war with China.
You get the picture. (Clicked on an iPhone X!).
Modi has been confident enough to take on Pakistan in a public meeting on American soil. The State Department has been traditionally known to have a human rights posture that often hurts India on Kashmir-related discussions in the US. Things have changed now, never mind the protests at Houston on the fringes.
The fact that Modi said what he said, sharing a stage with Trump, leaves little to imagination.
Talking on terrorism and showing Pakistan its place while boosting investments into India, is a fairy-tale scenario for an Indian vote catch.
‘Can One Play Chinese Checkers on an Indian Chessboard?’
When the cheers ebb, India may have to look at Sino-Pakistan relations and whether Beijing and Islamabad may enter into a tighter embrace, and what that means for the neighbourhood.
New Delhi may also need to re-calibrate its relations with Iran.
The Chinese, using their Belt and Road Initiative, are building a port at Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan province, while India's investment in Chabahar on the Iranian side, is another coin on the planet's geopolitical chessboard. However, it is interesting to note that Iran's foreign minister has been soft on China, and sees its role in Balochistan as a stabilising one in the war on terror. Iran has even spoken of Chabahar and Gwadar being linked in the backdrop of India stopping its purchases of Iranian oil under US sanctions.
Now, we just have to find out if one can play Chinese checkers on an Indian chessboard. Do we have a problem, Houston?
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, The Economic Times, Hindustan Times and Business Standard. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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