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10 October 2019, Gateway House

Modi’s anodyne U.S. trip

Prime Minister Modi’s tour of the U.S. last month was centred around the UN General Assembly’s 74th session and discussions on environmental challenges, but questions regarding the Indian government’s action in Kashmir persisted

Director, Gateway House

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the United States on a week-long tour, organised around the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2019. He used the time, speaking on environmental challenges to the global community, meeting with his counterparts and business honchos, and interacting with NRI groups. The Prime Minister probably addressed concerns regarding the 5 August 2019 abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution granting Jammu & Kashmir special status in the bilaterals. But more of the public diplomacy, stating India’s case to think tanks, was left to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who also had meetings with senior American officials and dozens of his counterparts.

The ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston was as jaunty as its tag, especially as President Trump joined the celebrations with both leaders praising each other, and the 50,000-strong NRIs in attendance in the hyper flattery that is the signature of election melas everywhere. While Texas is traditionally a Republican state NRIs tend to vote Democratic. That may explain why the Majority leader of the Democratic U.S. House of Representatives shared the stage with Trump and Modi, but only one of the five Indian American Congressmen, all Democrats, showed up. Although harmless in the way he said it, PM Modi’s call for “Ab ki baar Trump Sarkar” could be the cause of some embarrassment if a Democrat wins the 2020 election.

More substantial than the exuberance of the ‘Howdy Modi’ show was the PM’s meeting with energy companies in Houston, followed by the signing of a letter of intent to import $2.5 billion worth of LNG from Tellurian Inc.

At the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, banking on the scale of his re-election mandate and on significant corporate tax cuts announced just before he left for the U.S., Prime Minister Modi exhorted American business to invest in India. But his claim that the four factors of Democracy, Demography, Demand, and Decisiveness will lead India’s growth story sounded less convincing, considering the visibly serious economic slowdown in India.

Another dampener on the economic front was the absence of any announcement on outstanding trade issues between India and the United States. Though the talks continue, including a visit by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, there is no evidence of any give on the part of the U.S. on pricing of medical devices, the enhanced tariffs on steel and aluminum or the restoration of benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), sought by India.

The UNGA’s theme for the 2019 session was ‘galvanising multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion’, which gave the PM the opportunity to weave the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi into his address. At both the Climate Action Summit, as well as the UN General Assembly, he informed the world of India’s ambition to raise its targets for the use of renewable energy, greening the transport sector with e-mobility and the launch of a countrywide water conservation programme. The PM inaugurated a solar power project for the UN Building, named Gandhi Solar Park, and urged the world to join the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, initiated by India, which aims to build infrastructure with the capacity to withstand natural disasters.

All anodyne themes intended to show Indian leadership, but unlikely to quell disquiet regarding Kashmir.

The bestowing of the Global Goalkeeper Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on PM Modi for the Swachh Bharat Mission, with its commitment to achieve universal sanitation coverage, was well deserved. Nevertheless, it generated controversy, with critics, including three Nobel prize-winners, questioning its appropriateness, linking it to the abrogation of Article 370 and blocking of internet and mobile facilities in Kashmir.

Apart from Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, the only other leaders to bring up the situation in Kashmir were President Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia. Later, the three announced the joint launch of an English-language television channel to address Islamophobia and misperceptions about Islam.

The Pakistani PM’s threat of jihad and nuclear war, as he accused PM Modi personally of having fascistic tendencies, carries no credibility, but concern on the situation in Kashmir has begun to be expressed.

Even though President Trump extended his understanding on Kashmir at the event in Houston, Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary for South Asia in the State Department, indicated that the U.S. would like to see the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of promised elections at the earliest opportunity. Other American and British politicians have done so too, probably responding to their Pakistani constituents.

India is now a significant power that does not need to worry about reservations expressed by a handful of countries, but it does have to deal with the contentious situation on the ground in Kashmir. While the government had strong majority support in the Parliament for the abrogation of Article 370 it can lose credibility at home and even with friendly big powers, like the U.S. and France, unless it restores normalcy in the Valley in a timely and sensitive way.

Neelam Deo is C0-Founder and Director, Gateway House.

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