In the last three years of the Donald Trump presidency, one country that has almost never been on his radar is India. Since Bill Clinton, every serving United States President has visited India; Trump, of course, notoriously passed on the opportunity to be chief guest at the Republic Day Parade. Has Howdy Modi, held in Houston on September 22, changed that?
A careful examination shows that given Prime Minister Narendra Modi can't deliver the multi-billion dollars arms and commercial deals that Gulf Kingdoms do, which translate into blue collar votes for Trump, Modi is smartly trying to cut out the middleman of the commercial deal and directly transfer votes to Trump. The question is will he succeed.
Let be clear about one thing — Trump has always been transactional. This isn’t such a bad thing per se, because past American Presidents could’ve been said to cede too much for the amorphous idea of America's manifest destiny and Trump is simply recalibrating something that had gone too far. Part of this transactional nature is also internal politics, which is to say jobs for the rust belt and large, visible orders for American industry translate directly into votes.
Take the case of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. His rhetoric against Saudi Arabia during the election campaign as shrill and uncompromising. Yet a $350 billion arms deal (over 10 years) turned Trump into the Sauds' best friend, and unsubtly hinted he would be training his guns on Qatar. Qatar responded with a $12 billion arms deal that took the heat off them.
India of course is in no position to place these large orders; the last big tranche having been defence purchases of military helicopters under the Obama presidency. India thought the usual route of substituting the esoteric for the tangible would work: offering flattery in lieu of deliverables through a Republic Day invite. Obviously Trump wasn’t falling for it. So Modi found the one area he could deliver tangibles and that was direct votes, without the intermediary of arms or trade deals.
The statistics are fascinating. While it was estimated that only seven per cent of Indian Americans would vote for Trump in 2016 as per the National Asian American Survey, a whopping 23 per cent ended up voting for him. Contrast this with Mitt Romney who managed to get 16 per cent of the Indian American vote and John McCain who in 2008 managed to get just eight per cent. Clearly there is a decisive shift to the Republican Party underway from the Democrats. Clearly the perception of Democrats turning virulently ‘Hinduphobic’ is one factor in favour of Republicans.
What Modi seems to be doing though is to accelerate the process. His slogan of ‘Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkaar’ demonstrated to the Indian diaspora that Modi believes that India's interest are best served by Trump and the Republicans. Notice how the cheers at the event were much less for Trump than they were for Modi.
What the Houston event was, was an initial softening of the Indian American population to Trump, to use an analogy, it was ‘marinating the meat’ before roasting it. The trends should slowly start becoming clearer over the coming months leading up to the elections how the marinating pans out. However if it pans out several things will be clear. First, that Pakistanis cannot place large orders with America, being dependent on US aid, nor can they ever transfer votes to Trump. Second, Trump will not soften his position on trade and other bilateral disputes with India over mere promises of vote transfer, he will need a demonstration of tangibility to do this. Third, Modi will have much work to do to increase the percentage of Indian Americans voting republican and; fourth, Modi is willing to visibly and demonstrably punish the Democrats for increasingly hostile positions taking hold of the Democrats.
This bring us to the end game. If indeed Modi manages to deliver a significant increase in votes to Trump, India will acquire significant leverage in his second presidency (which looks like a foregone conclusion given the abysmal state of the Democrats). This means the ‘softening’ of Trump will happen not during his first term but during his second term. However, if the vote transfer scheme fails, we will see more of the same, but the chances of Trump getting any worse with India are minimal.
As such, what Modi pulled off in Houston, was an extremely shrewd move, it maximised positives and minimised the negatives. It should not be seen as the end in itself, but merely the beginning of a process that will culminate in 2020, ensure a further blossoming of ties at best, or status quo at worst.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.