WASHINGTON DC: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s week-long visit to the United States will be a raucous blend of pure politics and deft diplomacy. He will bask in the love of Indian Americans but also face protests about the situation in Kashmir.
President Donald Trump is a surprise guest at the “Howdy, Mody!” rally on Sunday where 50,000 Indian Americans are expected. It’s a public relations coup for the Indian side because Trump’s gesture is unprecedented.
India’s ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla, said the two leaders addressing the event at the same time reflects both the comfort levels in the relationship and the personal chemistry between them.
More than 30 Congressmen, senators and governors from both the Democratic and Republican Parties are also expected to attend, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives.
The presence of Trump and Democratic lawmakers on the same stage would make for interesting dynamics. The president is seen as polarizing on domestic issues and some, like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, are having second thoughts about attending.
Others like, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to win a seat in the House, have written letters to the Trump administration about their concerns regarding the situation in Kashmir.
Several Muslim NGOs, both legitimate and those driven by agendas, have been active over the last month, calling their representatives in the U.S. Congress to register their complaints on Kashmir.
There are no prizes for guessing the patron of the protesters. A well-funded Pakistani campaign was launched in the wake of the Modi government’s decision to end Jammu & Kashmir’s special status. It’s all system go, including the many “systems” abroad controlled by the ISI.
Khalistani and Pakistani American troublemakers in the U.S. and UK were activated to bring “10,000 protesters” to Houston to protest Modi’s presence in the city. How many actually show up remains to be seen.
Kashmir will dominate the atmosphere even though Modi’s visit is centred around the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he will attend the Climate Summit organised by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, showcase India’s green achievements and address the UNGA a few days later.
In between, he will deliver the keynote address at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, attend the CEO’s Forum, participate in an energy roundtable and receive an award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the “Swachch Bharat” campaign and meet Indian community and business leaders.
Several bilateral meetings with world leaders are also planned, including one with Trump. But he will use the occasion to meet leaders of as many smaller nations as he can because when it comes to UNGA votes, everyone counts. On the charts is a meeting with leaders of the Caribbean Community or CARICOM and those of Pacific island countries.
While India will work on its broad agenda of helping developing countries and ensuring its place in a multipolar world, Pakistan will focus on its one-point agenda—Kashmir.
As South Asia expert Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute says, “Kashmir is the ‘shah rug’ (jugular vein) of Pakistan, it is the unfinished business of Partition and without the “K” of Kashmir in Pakistan’s name, the country is incomplete.”
The abrogation of Article 370 by Modi has given Pakistan new ammunition—it will keep firing even if the bullets keep missing the target.
Despite the fact that no permanent member of the UN Security Council except China has given Pakistan’s recent histrionics on Kashmir much importance, Indian officials expect Islamabad’s anti-India campaign to continue, especially during the UNGA. The reason is simple—world leaders are in one place, western media is in attendance and whoever hypes more gets the clicks.
Indian diplomats led by Ambassador Shringla have been working tirelessly for more than a month to ensure Modi’s visit goes smoothly and that local U.S. authorities, including the police and secret service, are fully aware of the “foreign hand” working to disrupt it. Shringla has undertaken an aggressive media outreach.
“Howdy, Modi!” to be held at the NRG Stadium in Houston is expected to be bigger than previous gatherings Modi has addressed abroad, including his first at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2014. For one, the NRG is a behemoth of a stadium with a capacity of 72,000 and a retractable roof to boot. Rain or shine, the show will go on.
Billboards welcoming Modi to Houston are already up along with welcome messages from the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who met Modi last year on a visit to India, Senator John Cornyn, the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, and Mayor Sylvester Turner.
It’s safe to say Modi will connect with the crowd, deploying his oratorical skills to the fullest to gin up enthusiasm. The theme of the rally is “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures” which essentially means—don’t forget your motherland. Since it’s a daytime rally on a Sunday, family and kids can attend easily and make it a festive “India day” with samosas and Bollywood music.
But officials are also bracing for anti-India protests. Billboard messages—“Stop Genocide in Kashmir,” and “Support Democratic Values, Say No to Modi’s Visit” have gone up in Houston. Pakistani masterminds have blended both Kashmir and Khalistan into a poisonous cocktail over the years.
While Pakistan will do what it must, concern about the Kashmir situation among U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill is rising with each passing day. More than 30 Congressmen, women and senators have made some comment on social media about the clampdown, the curfew and blocking of cell phones.
Jayapal along with James McGovern, a liberal Congressman from Massachusetts, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 10, asking him to “press the Indian government to immediately lift the communication blackout and adhere to the international human rights standards” in J&K.
“Regardless of the complexity of any situation, we firmly believe that democratic principles of due process and human rights must apply,” they wrote. Jayapal leads the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and has been active on immigrant rights.
Two Muslim Congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Democrats, have been active on Twitter. Omar, a refugee from Somalia, wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador Ken Juster in New Delhi that mentions “reports of arbitrary detention, torture, and rape by security forces”.
The deep well of goodwill for India—both among Democrats and Republicans—has thus far prevented any resolution or public condemnation in either the House or the Senate. But nothing can be taken for granted.
Ambassador Shringla has met numerous members of the Congress personally to counter negative perceptions fed by a constant barrage of misinformation from Pakistani sources and media reports which Indian diplomats say are filled with half-truths and untruths.
The week ahead will be tough. On that, there should be no doubt.
(The author is a Washington-based analyst and columnist. Views expressed in this article are personal.)