Donald Trump's drop-in at 'Howdy, Modi' event a boost for India-US ties, but won't deter Kashmir naysayers

Tara Kartha

It's official. President Donald Trump will 'drop in' during the massive 'Howdy, Modi' event at Houston. It's a big public relations triumph for Team Narendra Modi at any time. Right now though, with a nasty campaign against India in the US media, it's a development that calls for the popping of champagne corks all around, except that the prime minister may opt for a root beer.

The round of reporting

We should expect a round of standard reporting from the media in the US, with reporters who would find it difficult to find Kashmir on a map, parroting 'reported human rights violations' and 'cutting off of communications' and the supposed threat of 'nuclear war'. In any case, Pakistan is expected to go on a media campaign just before the UN General Assembly session, with its minions already organising protests outside the Indian embassy last week. This campaign can be expected to get shriller and more ridiculous than before.

Recently, Pakistan Ambassador to the UN Shireen Mazhari tweeted that the 'fascist' Indian government was even cutting down apple trees in Kashmir. Apart from the fact that the video on which she based her opinion was called out as fake news, the sheer stupidity of the allegation would be surprising except that clueless reporters are lapping it up. Even a source as usually moderate as Forbes chose to print an article declaring that "There will always be a light for the Kashmiri people. American democracy will hold that light aloft".

And then there's this from The Daily Beast, apparently ascribing prophetic powers to Imran Khan, saying, "The Government of Pakistan€¦ has said genocide could be coming". There's worse. It quotes a (predictably) anonymous source who warns that 'no Member or Senator should join a pep rally for Modi because it was provoking a nuclear-armed neighbour'.

There's trouble ahead

The analysis here is that the stage was set for the Trump drop-in much earlier, and due to a variety of factors.

First, with the US election round the corner, the Houston rally is a signal from Modi, of Indian support that is invaluable, given not only the numbers but the relative prosperity of the Indian-American voting public. But here's the thing. The Pakistani population is also rising, and rapidly. The US Census Bureau estimates that some 363,000 Pakistanis live in the US €" up from 204,309 in 2000. And many are making it big.

In Texas, Syed Anwar Javad Anwar is understood to have been a key part of the decision-making cycle that led to the US invitation to the Pakistani prime minister. Founder of Midland Energy, he has doubled his contributions to the Republican cause. Pakistanis have also been successful in getting support from other Muslim populations like the Somalis, Palestinians and Muslims from various parts of Africa. This explains support for the Pakistani position from Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of a Michigan district which is one of the poorest areas of America, another by controversial Somali origin representative Ilhan Omar.

There are others, but the point is that Islamabad is working to make up for its lower numbers and clout, by including other members of the "ummah" in the US. Again, not included in this is a rising Pakistani buy-in into major think-tanks, that is reversing India's earlier edge. At yet another level, are young 20-somethings who are inside the bureaucracy as interns, assistants and advisors.  Like Indians, these next generation Pakistanis are bright, hard working and good at using the space that is being opened up to them.

Setting the stage

Meanwhile, regardless of Pakistani oil billionaires, there was  enough now to show that India is firmly moving to the US in terms of its energy needs. At the G7 meeting earlier, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had already pointed out that some $4 billion worth of energy imports are already in the pipeline. That should stir the appetite of the oil industry €" which is now among the top donors to the Republicans €" as a whole.

That shift to the US however has followed the virtual shutdown of imports from Iran. That's a price that Delhi seems willing to pay, as its inches up the ladder in terms of its relationship with the rest of West Asia. Recall that Saudi Arabia has not seen fit to comment on the situation on Kashmir, even thought it could do so easily from another point of criticism other than 'self-determination'. That's a shift that has caused Pakistan the greatest heartburn.

There are other areas where the US and India are coming closer. Relatively unnoticed is the "Yudh Abyas", an India-US military exercise that has just begun (9 September). Then there are the plans for a $130-billion defence modernisation that will surely include a huge chunk of US equipment. According to the US Census Bureau India has procured over $18 billion in equipment including Boeing Apache and Chinook helicopters, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, and C-17 heavy transport aircraft; Lockheed Martin C-130 aircraft; and BAE M-777 howitzers.

The US remains India's No 2 defence supplier following Russia.  That could change, as US companies get in line for the "Make in India" requirement at Tier 2 and 3 levels. At the operational level, the Indo-Pacific construct is making great strides, with an inter-sessional meeting held in August as well as another iteration of the Maritime Dialogue in the same month.

In sum, Delhi has been moving quickly (for once) on matters that will keep the US Trade Representatives office, the Pentagon, and the State Department among others reasonably happy with the progress in bilateral relations.

The Trump-Modi appearance at the 'Howdy, Modi' event will not affect Kashmir naysayers much, and in fact, may increase its emphasis among the Democrats, leading it to become part of election rhetoric later. But reality is fast catching up. Pakistan has literally nothing to offer.

And as it raises the ante in New York and Texas, Delhi has wisely decided to limit press conferences to the minimum, and concentrate on bilaterals. Meanwhile, the biggest challenge is not to get caught in another 'hyphenated' war. It has taken previous governments decades to get out of the "India-Pakistan" bracket. Remnants still remain in Washington bureaucracy, particularly when it comes to nuclear issues.

The 'Howdy, Modi' event will be presented as an India-US friendship construct entirely. Now it's upto social media and the news worthies in India. Hyphenation is a two way game, and Washington's editors and commentators can choose to play this game, or opt out. Better the latter. There's more money in it.

Also See: Donald Trump likely to join Narendra Modi on stage during 'Howdy Modi' rally for Indian diaspora in Houston

Trump to attend 'Howdy Modi' event: US president, seeking to burnish image ahead of 2020, banks heavily on Indian-Americans

With frenzied talk of imaginary war, Pakistan is playing a dangerous game; illusion won't take long to turn reality

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