By any metric, the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Houston on Sunday was a high-on-optics spectacle that projected political power — with a sprinkling of kitschy culture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had President Donald Trump — and an assemblage of bipartisan US lawmakers and governors — alongside him onstage, to the cheering adulation of some 50,000 Indian-Americans. In their respective speeches, Modi and Trump referred to each other as immensely popular leaders whom destiny has chosen to restore their countries to their erstwhile greatness. In that enterprise, both the leaders have inverted the rules of the political game with their distinctive style and populist rhetoric. On Sunday, they basked in mutual admiration — and in the adoration of their political constituents in the US. For Modi, who once faced the ignominy of having his US visa revoked by the State Department, the glowing messages from several US lawmakers and politicians at the Houston event count as yet another endorsement on the global stage of his unquestioned supremacy as India’s leader.
Yet, for all the feel-good effect of such optics in projecting bilateral bonhomie, their utilitarian value in bending the arc of the broader relationship between the two countries is somewhat limited. In the past, too, Modi’s image managers had amped up his personal chemistry with Trump, but Modi’s hands-on “hugplomacy” bore at best limited results. It did not, for instance, inhibit Trump from calling out India during the hardball negotiations over bilateral trade tariffs and at the WTO, and in the context of Trump’s expectation that India must do some heavy lifting in securing Afghanistan in order to facilitate US troop withdrawal from there. Similarly, the Trump administration has not fully accommodated India’s legitimate concerns under the tightened H-1B visa regime, which delivers on his ‘America First’ campaign promise.
Even on the chessboard of geopolitics, it is not clear that the strategic interests of India and the US are always congruent. India may momentarily be looking to capitalise on the full-scale trade war with China that Trump has unleashed. And Trump’s invocation of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” at the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally may have heartened Modi to the extent that it tied in with the objective of painting Pakistan as a hub of jihadi terror. But given Trump’s short attention span, and the sheer realpolitik compulsions that will require the US establishment to work with both China and Pakistan over the long term, embracing Trump publicly and wholeheartedly, as Modi did at Houston, only offers limited upside. That’s not to suggest that India ought not to engage actively with the US: in fact, the fruits of the deeper engagement over the past decade between the two erstwhile ‘estranged democracies’ have been bountiful. But all such engagements must be steered by level-headed pragmatism. One of history’s lessons is that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.