On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took U.S. President Donald Trump by the hand and led him along the perimeter of the floor of a Houston, Texas stadium, closing out what was effectively a joint political rally.
The shorter Modi gripped Trump’s hand tightly, often raising it as high as he could. The leader of a country whose per capita income is lower than those of Djibouti and East Timor paraded the world’s most powerful man on the latter’s own soil.
Trump and Modi, both icons of populist nativism, had just addressed an audience whose loyalties were unclear.
They spoke of a bond between America and India forged on a shared commitment to democratic pluralism, though it is opposition to these very values that serves as the basis of their domestic appeal.
Trump reiterated his pledge to stop “illegal immigration,” though some in the audience were perhaps among the 600,000-plus undocumented Indians living in America.
The whole spectacle was not only jarring, but also emblematic of the contradictions in the US-India relationship and the ugly reality that it is based now less on shared values and more on shared foes and even hatreds.
Many leading Democratic politicians choose to remain in denial over the reality that a shared animus toward Muslims drives popular support for the US-India relationship. But Trump is keenly aware of this dynamic.
On Sunday, Trump paused after using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” knowing that it would resonate with the Indian-origin crowd, which, in fact, responded with a standing ovation for him. Modi’s diasporic supporters in the United States admire the Indian prime minister and American president for the same reasons: both are seen as sticking it to the Muslims.
With his wholehearted participation in Sunday’s rally, Trump is likely seeking to translate some of that resonance with Indian-Americans into support from the community’s bundlers (political mega-fundraisers) and voters.
While Indian-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, the community is diverse and does not have a longstanding loyalty to the Democratic party, in contrast to black and Jewish Americans. Trump may have an opportunity to pull in support from upper-caste Gujarati Hindus in critical states like Georgia and Texas that are less solidly Republican than before.
Trump’s odds of courting a decent chunk of the Hindu American vote improve if Bernie Sanders ends up as his general election opponent. Sanders issued a full-throated condemnation of Modi’s siege of Kashmir, which shocked an Indian diaspora unaccustomed to being on the political defensive in the United States.
At the moment, Sanders is the only major Democratic candidate who has condemned Modi unequivocally. Though concern over the persecution of Kashmiris is growing on Capitol Hill, most Democratic nomination hopefuls have shied away from condemning Modi. For obvious reasons, they do not hesitate to condemn Trump. But Modi is taking India on a far more radical trajectory. A likely explanation for their reluctance to call out Modi: the influence of Indian-American donors.
Indian-Americans are one of the most prosperous ethnic groups in the United States, with a median income of $110,000. They’re also active donors to the Democratic Party. Many Indian bundlers tie their donations to advocacy for a strong relationship with New Delhi and a tougher stance toward Islamabad.
The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans has almost 200 members—a demonstration of the success of the Indian-American lobby. The influence of Indian-American bundlers is also why dozens of members of Congress, including leading Democrats, attended the Trump-Modi love fest on Sunday. And it also explains why Senator Kamala Harris, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, refrained from even mentioning the words “Modi” or “India” when asked by a Kashmiri American about the lockdown there.
Harris, who was born to an Indian mother, is the top recipient of donations from Indian-Americans in the current election cycle, receiving more funds than even Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu American senator who closely coordinates with advocacy groups in Washington tied to Hindu nationalist groups in India.
Instead of calling out Modi, Harris spoke about Trump and the absence of a US ambassador to Pakistan. She also made vague references to an “abuser” and the “abused,” but fell short of saying who exactly they are. Clearly, money not only talks, it also buys silence.
But it’s too easy to make this all about Trump. The reality is that the US-India relationship is buttressed by a bilateral consensus in Washington in its favour. While this consensus is at risk of eroding, the Washington bureaucracy, keen on using India to contain China, remains all in on Modi.
Since India’s annexation of Kashmir in early August, the top US diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells, has said little publicly about the human rights situation in the Muslim-majority region. But she has posted personally signed tweets celebrating the Houston rally, even as thousands of Kashmiris remain under arrest and millions more have been besieged by Indian security personnel.
Modi’s circumambulation of the Houston crowd with Trump in tow was in fact a victory lap. He will return home to India later this month embodying a “new India” that plays by its own rules.
Even after annexing Kashmir and throwing thousands in prison, Modi was able to get the American president and dozens of members of Congress to attend a rally for him on US soil.
India is already emboldened by Washington’s indifference. Senior officials in New Delhi increasingly speak of wresting control of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
Indian officials are now even more ambiguous about their policy of use of nuclear weapons toward Pakistan, raising the specter of conflict between the two rivals.
The detention of political leaders in Kashmir is likely to go on for months, if not years. And the broader siege of Kashmir will too continue indefinitely, pushing ordinary Kashmiris on to the path of violence.
Even as opposition figures in India now warn of an emerging fascism, most US presidential candidates are choosing to look away. But whoever wins in November 2020 will not have the luxury of ignoring the inevitable convulsions that will afflict India and the region as Modi continues with his campaign to make India an authoritarian Hindu majoritarian state.
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