Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second visit to the United States during the Donald Trump administration got off to a dream start in Houston. The Howdy Modi extravaganza, attended by 50,000 Indian-Americans, outshone the 2014 Madison Square Garden event both in scale and by virtue of Trump sharing the stage with Modi. The presence of Senators and Congressmen, including the House Majority Democrat leader Steny Hoyer, speaks to bipartisan support in the Congress for the India-US partnership. While the formal bilateral meeting on Tuesday will be the appropriate occasion for a serious discussion, Houston provides some important insights.
The most obvious takeaway from the event was the personal chemistry between the two leaders. This easy affinity had been evident during their first-ever meeting at the White House in June 2017, but appeared to wobble a bit after some disruptive Trump tweets on tariffs and remarks on the marginal Harley Davidson issue. Recent meetings in Osaka and Biarritz indicated a correction: The Houston event has converted that into a publicly demonstrated bond. Lavish personal praise, mutually expressed admiration for each other’s achievements, the body language throughout the event, and the political equivalent of a victory lap around the ecstatic stadium at the end said it all. Given Trump’s personality, this personal chemistry can prove to be a winning card.
The second alignment of views was on the issue of terrorism. A standing ovation greeted Trump’s statement against radical Islamic terror. The PM in turn made a thinly-veiled strike at Pakistan as a sponsor of terror without naming the country; he underlined the common vulnerability with the US by referencing both 9/11 and 26/11. The Trump administration has, by and large, taken a harder line on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror despite some tactical rope given in exchange for cooperation on Afghanistan. Cooperation with India on counterterrorism has grown, as clear from fresh designations of terrorist organisations and favourable developments at the United Nations and Financial Action Task Force.
Both leaders spoke extensively about the two economies and the way ahead. The prime minister laid out his vision of India’s development including enhanced coverage in rural sanitation, rural connectivity and banking. Affordability of data and the removal of excess regulations had contributed to greater ease of doing business which made India an attractive FDI destination. He also spoke about the steps necessary to achieve a $5 trillion economy — more investment, enhanced infrastructure and increased exports. All this is important for America to hear. India as an economy with a bright future is a very positive part of the India story.
Trump talked up the six million jobs created during his tenure, the low unemployment and inflation rates, and his tax cuts. He praised investment by Indian companies in the US and the tens of thousands of American jobs created. India has repeatedly made this point since the Trump administration, extremely transactional on trade and investment, took office. To hear it from the US president would be sweet music to Indian officials and corporates.
Though trade issues would probably be reserved for the bilateral meeting, both leaders talked about a subset: Energy cooperation. The significance of the PM’s first engagement — with CEOs of 17 energy majors — was not lost on Trump. He welcomed India’s purchase of oil and natural gas from the US and pushed for further increase, projecting the US as the world’s number one producer of oil and gas. India has consistently argued that the annual purchase of $4.5 billion since 2017 will make a serious dent in the $ 24 billion trade deficit that worries Trump’s trade team. From our viewpoint, this straight purchase must deepen to mutual investment in the energy sector.
Trump’s references to defence and security cooperation are worth noting. He recognised that India’s defence purchases now amount to $18 billion and more deals are in the pipeline. Again, this recognition is welcome. Our increasing diversification is exactly India’s argument when faced with potential sanctions for purchase of the S-400 system from Russia. Growing interoperability between the two defence forces, so essential for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, was also underlined by Trump with his reference to Tiger Triumph, the forthcoming first ever tri-services exercise.
Last, and certainly most important for the Houston audience, Trump’s unstinting praise and support for the Indian-American community, even after discounting his electoral calculations, would have been heartwarming. Indian-Americans were appreciated as hard-working pioneers in medicine, business and technology, and a community that America was proud to call its own. A subterranean concern in the community regarding Trump’s tough line on immigration has periodically surfaced in the context of tightening of H1-B regulations or random hate crimes by white supremacists. The president’s remarks, in sharp contrast to his castigation of illegal immigrants, should set at rest these concerns.
The Indian delegation would have had good reason to be satisfied with the Houston leg as they move to New York for a packed five days.