Entering the stadium is a metaphor. It means playing in centre court or centre stage under the glare of international view and scrutiny. If you think it’s going to be smooth sailing between Washington and New Delhi post the Houston event, think again. To what you’re thinking, also add the simple fact that such an event-driven by India actually happened.
As I watched the HowdyModi event in Houston on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. One underwrote all. It was that New Delhi had finally recognised the Indian diaspora in the United States (US) as equals and not just American Indians who left the country for greener pastures. No, this was not like previous events. This was business from the word go as it should be. There was no begging bowl, no please, can you kindly think about India in brackets. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy and Donald Trump, the President of the world’s most powerful democracy were paying a handsome tribute to Indians in America as well as publicly including them in a major discourse. There was no place for terrorism here.
Whatever be the reasons they left India, they were being honoured and respected in the highest way possible. These were common people, like you and me, going about their lives without pomp and pageantry. Their tears and joys were being celebrated with pride and equanimity. Beyond all diplomatic translations and geopolitical strategies, it was the everyday Indian American who was being honoured by two very powerful people. Community service and giving back is as American as apple pie, an everyday thing Americans identify with. We are peaceful people and we do not harbour terrorists.
There is no precedent to this in Indo-American diplomatic parlance and settings. This is not comparable to US President John F. Kennedy personally meeting Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the late 1950s when the threat of a nuclear war (Bay of Pigs) hung over a world divided into two blocs – the Soviets and the Western bloc. India was in the Soviet bloc and Washington was hoping to secure a split. This was an Indian Prime Minister inviting an American President to an Indian party on American soil. Entering the stadium is not just a metaphor. India wants terrorists to leave the centre court.
In all my years of reporting, reading and watching, I have not seen anything like the Houston event. No other international leader has hand-held a US President literally back and forth on the world stage. None. Not a Macron (France), Merkel (Germany), Xi (China), Abe (Japan) or Johnson (UK). Yes, it was orchestrated and yes, it was staged, but even getting there is no easy task. Hours of diplomatic work must have gone into making Houston possible – that one photo opportunity, that one frame, that one statement is the outcome of hundreds of people working to get it right. Terrorists cannot sup at the high table.
Prime Minister Modi ticked off all the boxes. The meeting with the Kashmiri Pundits and the Sikhs was for domestic consumption. The former was also aimed at the United Nations General Assembly (UN) currently in session in New York (NY). All world leaders use international media to speak to domestic concerns. President Donald Trump was also counting votes as he heads for re-election in just over a year from now. This is business as usual. Terrorists have no place in a democracy.
But, as a Texan would ask, where’s the beef? Are there lobbies at work ask Indians? It is naïve to think otherwise. There’s no free lunch and phones must be ringing even as I write this. Who will get the contracts and will close a deal. The business of terrorism will be called out.
Beyond the hyperbole and the 100-gallon Texas-like talk show-like platform called HowdyModi, the penny one hopes, has finally dropped in Washington. India is not just any other low to middle income developing country that can be pushed around in a part of the world that badly lacks a strong US presence. In addition to being the world’s largest democracy with potentially the world’s largest market, India is strategically placed in a spot Washington loves to hate - Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. Democratic India understands democracies with all its warts and wounds. It does not recognise terrorism.
Engaging Houston’s traction and keeping it focused will not be easy. Speaker after speaker repeated that the state of Texas was India’s fourth-largest trading partner among American states. My readout is market access for American goods and manufacturing will be the stick. India’s energy needs and how Texas is the way to go was also a recurrent theme. I read that as keep Iran away. New Delhi has made it clear to Washington that Iran is a country with which India has deep and long-lasting relations and will not entertain US pressure. India is a victim of terrorism from Pakistan.
On terrorism, Trump delivered a stinging criticism of Pakistan and placed it on what can only be called a watch-list. This is music to India’s ears, but the assumption that Trump and Modi are on the same page here is misleading.
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The American President wants an honourable retreat from Afghanistan to leave the war – the longest in American history – and hopes criticising Pakistan will suffice. Taliban and terror came up often in Trump’s speech. I am sure Indian diplomats recognise the consequences of what comes next as they maintain that delicate balance between national aspirations and international exigencies. A free and trigger happy Taliban in Afghanistan and a doddering leadership in Pakistan is the last thing Indian national security can afford. There’s a deal here with the US, the details of which we’ll hopefully know soon. I hope India will drive this.
As someone who has the luxury of watching and reporting international affairs from a middle point in Europe, I hope India plays its democracy and market access card firmly in return for anything Washington asks for withdrawing from Afghanistan. We cannot afford a trade dispute with Washington. Indians did not create the Afghanistan problem and we have repeatedly called out Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India. It has taken at least a decade of work by Indian diplomats so see our problems with Pakistan that is an ATM driven terror machine that strikes on call.
India is neither an economic giant nor a military super-power, yet. But, it has enabled a new grammar and idiom on terrorism, especially cross border terrorism. When everything falls into place neatly, I immediately ask – where’s the real story? HowdyHuoston must translate into tangible results Indians can see and grasp. We watch and we keep the faith.
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