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

Deven Kanal

Stop me if you've heard this one: An embattled politician, surrounded by controversy and scandal, latches on to a more popular contemporary to burnish his image. It's a playbook as old as politics itself. So, news that United States president Donald Trump is going to drop in on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's event in Houston, Texas should come as no surprise to political observers.

With Trump's popularity hovering in the high 30s and the low 40s in most polls, and with House Democrats stepping up their impeachment inquiry, the US president is keen to seize any opportunity to polish his profile. That Trump is according Modi importance makes sense given his Indian counterpart's undiminished popularity both at home and with expats.

Indeed, it is more than a little ironic that Trump is using Modi ahead of the 2020 presidential election much in the same way that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using Trump ahead of the 17 September Israel polls. The fact that it was Netanyahu who lavished praise on Modi at the 2018 Raisina Dialogue and all but endorsed him ahead of the 2019 polls may prove true that old adage: the universe may not always play fair, but at least it's got a hell of a sense of humour.

Trump makes play for influential Indian-American community

As per a report in the academic journal The Conversation, although Indian-Americans make up just one percent of the US populace (2.4 million), being the wealthiest ethnic group in the US with a median income of $107,000 (twice that of American households), they are extremely influential.

In 2004, a bipartisan India Caucus was formed in the US Senate headed by Hillary Clinton, then Democratic senator of New York, and John Cornyn, Republican Senator from Texas. This was the first time a Senate caucus was formed dedicated to a single country, as per the report.

Trump from the outset of his presidential campaign, made a play for Indian-Americans; this despite the community strongly leaning Democratic €" 84 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and an identical percentage voted for Trump's rival Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump hit headlines in India with his "I am a big fan of Hindu" remark and his praise of Modi for "taking India on a fast track growth with a series of economic reforms and reforming bureaucracy".

He is also perhaps the first candidate in US political history to release a campaign ad targetting Indian-American voters: borrowing Modi's winning slogan in 2014 for a TV commercial with the slogan "ab ki baar Trump sarkaar".

Trump, since taking office in 2017, perhaps with an eye on 2020, has appointed more than two dozen Indian-Americans to senior positions in his administration €" former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was appointed ambassador to the United Nations, being the most prominent example €" and praised them for their "incredible performance".

Trump tapped lawyer Neomi Jehangir Rao to serve on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit as a replacement for Brett Kavanaugh, the controversial US Supreme Court judge. Rao, sworn-in in March, previously served as the head of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and was recognised for her contribution in reducing red tape.

Other high-profile Trump appointments include Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services and Raj Shah, the White House Deputy Press Secretary (the first Indian-American to hold this post).

But with voters of Indian descent most likely to support former vice president Joe Biden €" a candidate handily beating Trump in hypothetical matchups across the United States €" it seems that the self-professed "big fan of Hindu" has an uphill climb.

With inputs from agencies

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