So do you fancy United States President Donald Trump turning up for the first-ever NBA pre-season match in Mumbai early next month? According to the man himself: “You may be surprised!” And should that happen, diaspora will have well and truly trumped diplomacy.
Keeping such a possibility in mind, this was the defining moment of the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ mega event in Houston on Sunday: As Trump finished his address to a packed audience at the NRG Football Stadium and was about to return to his designated seat, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose from his chair, walked up to Trump, held his hand and walked him back to his seat. A programme arranged entirely by and for the Indian diaspora in America, to offer a public podium to a visiting prime minister, had well and truly transcended the protocol-bound, dogmatic plane of diplomacy and immersed itself into a celebration of Indo-US ties -- whereby, the holders of the highest public offices in the world’s largest and oldest democracies not only walked lock-step in terms of their shared concerns for areas of common interests, but were also seen holding hands, literally, for much of their public appearance together.
That will undoubtedly rank as the biggest take-away for the 55,000-strong audience at the NRG as well as for the estimated three million-plus global audience who dared keep their Sunday primetime or late-evening soap opera or popcorn-munching theatre-outing aside and stayed glued to their television or smartphone screens instead to see how well two elected leaders, chalk-and-cheese in terms of their cultural backgrounds and political affiliations, gel in front of a largely non-political audience and that too at a venue that is more akin to people shaking a leg at a Metallica, U2 or Beyonce concert than consuming oratory from political heavyweights.
In that sense alone, ‘Howdy, Modi!’ was truly path-breaking. Though both Trump and Modi had their own bit of political and nationalistic hard-selling to do for their respective target-audiences within and beyond America, the event never degenerated into a hard-nosed diplomat’s or a hard-nut-to-crack politician’s preordained sales pitch. Instead, it had all the bearings of a changing world order that’s marked more by symbiotic compulsions rather than a Big Brother’s one-upmanship in a unipolar globe.
Right through ‘Howdy, Modi!’, it was evident that whether it is projecting India as a counterweight to China’s growing influence as an alternative power-centre to a US-dominated global trading matrix or placating Indian-American sentiments heading into an election year … President Trump had his own reasons for a Sunday appearance at a concert hall packed with Indian-Americans. Modi, of course, had for long been missing such a pulpit outside India that would offer him an opportunity to drive home a few points about some of the contentious domestic policies adopted by his federal government in recent times – comments primarily aimed at a diaspora audience, but meant to echo around the world, giving the Indian prime minister just the kind of global bandwidth he needs. In that sense, both Trump and Modi used the opportunity to the hilt -- with Trump trying to justify his push for a non-porous border to the south of America as part of his declared resolve to keep the US safe from illegal immigrants; and Modi claiming his government’s deliverance over the last five years with regard to several social-welfare and development schemes and even going to the extent of asking the audience to give a standing ovation to India’s parliament members for having allowed the abrogation of Article 370 of its Constitution, thereby revoking special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
In fact, Modi and Trump found enough mutual cause at back-slapping each other right through the event, with the US president endorsing Modi’s contribution towards projecting India as a true partner of America and the Indian PM making a very public endorsement for a second Trump-term in White House with his “Fir ekbar, Trump Sarkar” (Yet again, a Trump government) quip!
And as expected, both the leaders veered clear of all the unpleasant issues that currently vex bilateral trade ties: Whether it is India’s oil purchases from US-sanctioned Iran or New Delhi being struck off the list of Generalised System of Preferences scheme for its exports to the American market.
However, let’s not forget that this was not an official visit to the US by the Indian premier and so expecting any major policy outreach or recalibration of the existing coordinates of bilateral issues from either side will be grossly fallacious. The moot point is that for a third-world country like India to be able to even get into the game of optics in the most enterprising nation in the world is in itself a huge plus for New Delhi and its current dispensation. Full credit for that goes to Modi. Moreover, having Trump say in as many words that fighting radical extremism and keeping its borders safe were America’s priorities, was a huge endorsement of New Delhi’s concerns over cross-border terrorism. For Modi, drawing parallels between the 9/11 terror attacks on the US and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks was one of the strongest and most definitive articulations by an Indian prime minister of the need to fight terror on a global scale.
In a nutshell, ‘Howdy, Modi!’ is the new benchmark for ‘off-the-cuff diplomacy’, seen from an American perspective, and ‘Chaye pe Charcha’ [tete-a-tete over tea] gone chic!