The personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump is partly based on the convergence of political world views regarding immigration, “radical Islamic terror”, and trade. It is also partly based on shared values of the global right, which encompasses the rejection of a liberal-progressive ethos which includes the notion that a free press is an essential element of a democracy.
Against that backdrop, there could have been little doubt that the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, would be a resounding public relations victory for Mr. Modi. Not only did he get the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful nation to play second fiddle in his formulaic diaspora-connect event, but Mr. Modi also managed their back-channel parleys so adroitly that potential sources of structural friction, including deep-festering concerns over tariffs, possibly divergent views on the ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir, and entrenched positions on how to deal with Pakistan received nary a mention in official remarks.
But then public relations exercises are simply that — window dressing. The sponsors of such events hope the euphoria will stick for long enough that some people who aren’t already drinking the Hindutva Kool-Aid buy into the paradigm and join the multitudes across the world keeping the saffron superstructure afloat.
However, the cracks are already showing. The much-vaunted big-bang announcement on trade that was hinted at prior to ‘Howdy, Modi’ did not materialise. Talks may still be in progress over the more troublesome parts of a potential U.S.-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), including tariffs on medical devices, electronic, telecommunications and dairy products; the expiration of India’s preferential trade status under the Generalized System of Preferences; and perhaps Mr. Trump’s bugbear — the export of Harley Davidson motorcycles to India. Yet the more troubling aspect of this bilateral conversation is the direction that it is taking — implicitly pushing “mini trade deals” over the broader commitments made to the WTO. This is nothing new for Mr. Trump, who is also pushing a similar bilateral-based trade agreement with Japan. But has there been a broader discussion in India about the costs and benefits of undermining the multilateral system in favour of a limited trade agreement, even with a strategically important ally? The fact is that a U.S.-India FTA might well run contrary to the WTO requirement that its members only accede to trade deals that cover “substantially all trade” — thereby avoiding a situation where countries partner up and unfairly discriminate against a third country or trading bloc. In the past New Delhi has certainly leaned heavily on the dispute resolution mechanisms afforded to it under the WTO’s arbitration facilities (ironically including against Washington on multiple occasions), so how could we not ask, a priori, if we are ready to throw that away before rushing into the Trumpian embrace?
Visible post-‘Howdy, Modi’ cracks are appearing in spheres other than trade as well. Mr. Trump characterising of Mr. Modi’s remarks on Kashmir or Pakistan as “a very aggressive statement” belies the ostensible warmth that was on display at the NRG stadium between the two leaders. Similarly, Mr. Modi’s government and governance in Jammu and Kashmir has spooked numerous U.S. Democrats, including Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Ilhan Omar and at least five members of the U.S. Congress who have explicitly voiced concern over the prevailing conditions in that region. And even though most of the mainstream media did not cover them, ordinary Americans and activists took to the streets in Houston to protest human rights abuses in India under the current dispensation and #AdiosModi did the rounds on social media.
While Mr. Modi may bask for a while in the event’s afterglow, it will not be long before he is back to tussling with the economic and social challenges that await him at home.