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PM Modi in Houston: balance and bonhomie

Aashna Agarwal (AA): Welcome to the Gateway House podcast. We have with us today Ambassador Neelam Deo, who will be discussing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. earlier this week.

After having large-scale events in New York and San Francisco, Prime Minister Modi had one in Houston. What impact will this have on Indian American voters in Texas?

Neelam Deo (ND): Prime Minister Modi’s interaction with the Indian American community in Houston was, of course, highlighted by the fact that U.S. president Trump joined this event, which had 50,000 people filling the NRG Stadium. This is unusual, even by American standards – or Indian. And importantly, the American president stayed through the event, which lasted several hours, and with him, were more than 20 Congressmen and senators,  many of whom were Democrats. So, in effect, it became a bipartisan gathering. The Indian Americans (in Houston) and those who had come in large numbers from other states were, of course, delighted by it all – that Modi should visit; that president Trump joined the event; and that it was bipartisan.

One point worth noting was that Raja Krishnamurthy, a Congressman of Indian origin, was there. This reflects the way the role of the Indian American community has changed over the past 20-30 years: they are present now not only in the American political establishment, in the State Houses or at the level of staffers and advisors, but as members of the U.S. Congress itself.

AA: Abki bar Trump sarkar – will this slogan of Prime Minister Modi’s, which he used in his speech, affect U.S.-India relations should Trump lose the elections in 2020?

ND: This was more like referencing the fact that Trump had used that line in an event at the beginning during his own campaign for his first term. I think it will be seen as bipartisan; not as interference in any way, nor as an endorsement of President Trump’s re-election bid, but really as praise and in admiration of the American political system, which is an open one and one in which Indian Americans participate in full.

I think we should not exaggerate the importance of one event. The event in Houston was a tremendous success, but it is an event. The U.S.-India bilateral relationship is a continuum. It has its ups and downs. It will have moments, high points, like the Houston event, but, on the other hand, irritations can be felt in negotiations between the bureaucracies of the two countries – whether in trade or progress in the defense equation. In all these issues, negotiations are always a matter of give and take; so those will continue on the side.

It’s entirely possible that President Trump may win this election; equally, it is possible that he may lose it to one of the Democratic challengers. I don’t think anyone will remember this (slogan) as an important part of the India-U.S. relationship. This was a throwaway line, at most, a joke, and nobody will see it any differently.

House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, was there in Houston and gave a speech, full of praise for Prime Minister Modi himself, and also for the India-U.S. relationship. Trump spoke about the importance of the contribution of the Indian American community to the American economy and American society in terms of values upheld. The Indian American community is an integral part of American society.

So one remark of this nature will not have negative impact – whether or not President Trump wins the next election.

AA: Prime Minister Modi met with Russian president Putin last month, U.S. president Trump this week, and next month, is scheduled to have Wuhan 2.0 with Chinese president Xi Jinping, in India. Do you think Modi is successful in striking a balance with world powers?

ND: His frequent interactions at the highest levels show, more than anything else, that India has come to occupy a more important place in the global order. Meetings between all these leaders will also take place in New York this week, the week of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 74). It is difficult to predict an early meeting between President Trump and the Chinese president since their trade issues are now being referred to as ‘a trade and technology war’. It’s also complicated for Trump, who really wished to have closer relations with Russia, to have many meetings with Putin as he (Trump) heads into his re-election campaign because that has become such a sensitive issue for the American establishment.

So in some ways, India is in a good place, it’s a sweet spot. We can highlight our interactions and meetings with Russia, the U.S. and with China, whereas the other three are not in a happy place in their bilateral interactions – though Russia and China have become very close and Putin and Xi have been meeting more frequently. So while it reflects the importance India occupies, it also reflects the fact that Prime Minister Modi has really been energetic about building up personal equations with all the leaders and talking up the bilateral relationship that India has with Russia, the U.S., and with China.

AA: That brings me to my last question.  A deal has been signed between the U.S. natural gas company, Tellurian Inc. and Petronet LNG Ltd of India. Is this just one trade deal or does it indicate larger energy cooperation between the two?

ND: Houston is generally referred to as the energy capital of the world. It is a place – not  where oil was first discovered, but where oil became a globally traded commodity. So one deal for $2.5 billion won’t change the global energy markets, but it is important for two reasons. Already 20% of the natural gas we imported in 2018 came from the U.S., from the Houston area. Secondly, this is a deal which can lead to more interaction. Almost the first thing that Prime Minister Modi did upon landing in Houston was to have a meeting with energy CEOs – senior representatives from 17 companies were present. So, it becomes more like a signal – that India is interested in importing more fossil fuels from the U.S., more oil, gas, whatever can be transported economically. It’s also very important – and Gateway House has been promoting this idea for a while – that India buy more oil from politically stable countries, like the U.S. or Canada or Australia, and also invest in oil and gas assets in these areas because the political climate in the Gulf is problematic at the moment. (Our investment in Venezuela has gone sad for the moment; it may revive when things change in that country.) But this deal is also important for the signal being sent out that we ourselves want a more balanced trade with the U.S. and are working to reduce the American deficit in Indo-U.S. trade.

AA: Thank you.

Produced by Aashna Agarwal
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