Is Trump-Modi bonhomie dividing Indian-Americans?

Community representatives see Indo-U.S. ties divergently

Updated - July 05, 2017 10:44 am IST

Published - July 04, 2017 08:51 pm IST - Washington

Prime Minster Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump were effusive in praising each other during their joint media appearance on June 26, and both underscored the similarities between their politics and styles.

The bonhomie between the two leaders, however, has put many Indian-Americans, who are critical of Mr. Trump but root for Mr. Modi, in a dilemma, even as the section that argues that both leaders are of the same ilk were jubilant after the meeting.

Founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition Shalabh Shalli Kumar, whose Twitter handle identifies him as the “bridge between Trump and Modi” represents the second argument. Personal rapport and chemistry are of limited value in power relations and what matters the most is the match in philosophies, he said.

‘Match in philosophies’

“Politicians — Modi is a great politician — learn the art of establishing a rapport, and he did so with [Barack] Obama also. But what did Obama give him? Between President Trump and PM Modi, there is a match in political philosophies,” Mr. Kumar told The Hindu. “Things are moving in the right direction between India and the U.S.”

Nish Acharya, who served in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Mr. Obama, has a different take. “I don’t think there was any real bonhomie. There were three hugs in the last count, but nothing really happened. Hillary Clinton would have been a great partner, and she would have ensured continuity in U.S-India ties,” said Mr. Acharya, who is critical of Mr. Trump’s policies, which he terms “exclusionary.” On the contrary, Mr. Modi’s politics is to empower the poor and the middle class, he said.

“Modi is a very shrewd politician. He managed it [the meeting] well, and that is what we saw as the bonhomie. The fact is that Trump has no people in place to manage relations with India,” he said.

Differing world views

Asked whether Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump shared the same world view, Mr. Acharya said: “That is factually incorrect. The BJP, in terms of its policy, is much much closer to the Democrats than they are to the Republicans. In fact, if you look at most of the things Modi has done, like demonetisation and GST, all of this was done to empower people and connect them to the system. His policies are all to empower the poor and the middle class in the economy. The BJP is probably to the Left of Democrats.”

Mr. Acharya, however, agreed that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi promote religious national identity. “As a political strategy, that is something that they share. But Trump’s nationalism does not include people like Modi or me in it. They [the BJP] are certainly Hindu-first and India-first, but how exclusionary is it? One on hand, he is inviting FDI and welcoming American companies, and on the other, he is socially conservative, promoting upper-class Hindu agenda. But in actual practice, they are pretty different,” he said.

The Democrat said since people in the White House “did not care for the same things” that the Modi government cares about, such as climate change, the ties were going to be “slow and boring” in the immediate future. Mr. Kumar pointed out that the trip was extremely successful and built on Mr. Trump’s appearance at the Indian-American rally he had organised last October. The Trump administration has accepted that a “militarily strong India is good for the region, and defence equipment purchases will now pick up speed.”

According to him, only the liberal side of the Indian-Americans opposed Mr. Trump “for his position on Muslims, which was perceived in a wrong way.” “Look at it now, he goes out to Saudi Arabia and brings together all Muslim nations to cooperate on terrorism. He was portrayed to be anti-Muslim, by Leftists in the Indian-American community,” Mr. Kumar said.

Pointing out that Republicans are generally more favourable to India historically, Mr. Kumar said Ms. Clinton’s “leftist ideas and love for Pakistan” would have caused a setback in ties with India and developing a partnership with Mr. Modi, if she were elected.

Mr. Kumar agrees that America-first and India-first can coexist, an assertion made by Mr. Modi during his visit to the U.S.

“They are both nationalists. And the agreement between the U.S and India must be bilateral and not global. India needs American equipment, technology. So the agendas of these leaders can mutually complement,” Mr. Kumar said.

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