A wing and a prayer for ‘Howdy Modi!’

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump.

The die has been cast for a massive rally by Indian Americans in Houston on Sunday, September 22, 2019 to honour Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rallies for Indian Americans have become larger each time Mr. Modi visits the U.S. ever since his appearance in the Madison Square Garden. No other Prime Minister of India has drawn as many people to such rallies as he has done in the United States.

An added attraction of the event is that President Donald Trump will become the first President of the United States to participate in a rally to honour a visiting foreign leader. He is likely to be accompanied by several Senators, Congressmen and others from both the parties. Several announcements, including some understanding on trade and other matters are expected. By all accounts, it is going to be game changing event in India-U.S. relations.

All of us, believers or otherwise, however, must keep all our fingers crossed with a wing and a prayer for the success of this unprecedented event for various reasons. It is a difficult and risky enterprise for which divine intervention and luck are extremely important. Tulsi Gabbard, the only “Hindu” Congresswoman and presidential candidate, who was one the most enthusiastic organisers of the event, will not attend on account of other electoral preoccupations, also indicating ideological differences with some of the Indian American leaders. The weather has also played havoc on Thursday in Texas, prompting the authorities to declare emergency in certain areas of Texas. The fact that Pakistan refused to allow the PM to fly over its territory also indicates that it will play a negative role in Houston.

More than anything else, the volatility of India-U.S. relations at this time is the most worrying factor. With all the joviality and friendship demonstrated at their recent meetings, it is far from clear as to what prompted Mr. Trump to attend the event. The obvious answer is that he wants to win over the Indian voters in the U.S. in the forthcoming elections. The Indian organisers have been saying that their aim is to make the President and the Prime Minister realise the importance of the Indian community in the U.S. “We are successful. We are strong. We have done good things for Houston,” one of them said.

The earlier impression that Mr. Trump is a bull in a china shop has receded and everyone knows that there is a method in his seeming madness. But his total unpredictability continues, even with matters relating to India. There is no guarantee that he will not use the “K” word to a crowd of South Asians, particularly as he has been engaged in finding a solution to the problem. The only deterrent to his direct mediation is only the strong Indian position.

Pakistan is bound to organise big demonstrations and the Indian Americans themselves are not averse to any peace moves by the President. We should also be aware that Pakistanis in the South Asian community also have votes and some of them are likely to be in the President’s entourage and the President cannot take a totally pro-Indian position, if he has an eye on the vote of the South Asian community.

All said and done, the President has a bee in his bonnet about imbalance in India-U.S. trade. Even before, we had trouble with the U.S. on international trade issues, but not on bilateral trade. Mr. Trump has been voicing his concern ever since Mr. Modi visited him in the White House. Something seems to have been worked out, but the President does not see eye to eye with the U.N. theories about the indivisibility of prosperity and the duty of the developed world to help developing countries with regard to market access and fair tariffs. He may also have sharpened his tools for the forthcoming session of the General Assembly, where, like last year, he may challenge globalism.

Two other major issues, the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and the Iranian sanctions will also come up in the bilateral meetings either in Houston or elsewhere. How to reconcile these myriad issues with the body language and public pronouncements in Houston is a challenge to both the leaders.

The Indian community in the U.S. generally is swayed by “good news” and “bad news” from India, depending on how these are likely to affect its own fortunes. Over the years, because of the efforts of the Embassy and others, the community has begun to believe that good India-U.S. relations are helpful to them, but they are not very sensitive to subtle elements of foreign policy, which require careful handling. For instance, they were very involved in pushing the nuclear deal, but whenever Indian negotiators raised some fundamental issues of policy, they showed irritation and impatience.

Many Indian Americans are unaware of the complexities in India-Pakistan relations. They envisage a happy South Asia, free of conflicts and complications so that the region prospers and their relatives live in peace and comfort. On Kashmir itself, they have an open mind and they may not understand the logic of India’s recent pronouncements about Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. They do not see our contention that Kashmir is a symbol of India’s secularism and must remain part of India for all time to come. These shades of opinion may be reflected in the attitude of the community when it comes to India-Pakistan relations.

The Prime Minister himself and others may have taken all these into consideration before embarking on the “Howdy Modi” adventure. All of us have a stake in its success and a prayer in any language must go from the lips of all Indians to the heavens.

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