NEW DELHI: One good turn deserves another. At the “Howdy Modi” event in a packed NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, with President Donald Trump looking on, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a familiar line: “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar”. It was a play on Trump’s pitch for Modi in India’s 2014 election (with the names reversed), but will what worked for Modi, work for Trump in next year’s election?
It didn’t matter. Trump had Modi’s thumping endorsement, a point underscored when at the end of his nearly hour-long address, the Prime Minister led Trump by the hand for a walk around the cheering stands. It’s not clear if the walk was planned. Television images caught Modi walking up to Trump after his address, brief words were exchanged and the two were off.
Earlier, speaking in English, Modi was fulsome in his praise of Trump, referring to his as “a very special person, his name is familiar to everybody on this planet, his every word is followed by tens of millions … today he is with us, this is unprecedented, historic”.
Above all, this was a pitch for India-U.S. friendship, with Modi making the point that differences over Kashmir and trade were over and done with. India and America were embarking on a renewed course with the focus on trade, business and investment, a united stand against terrorism and closer military cooperation including weapons transfers. A major military exercise is due to take place in November with the two countries and others participating.
But it was Kashmir that drew the biggest cheers. “We have farewelled Article 370,” he said “since it hindered the development of Jammu & Kashmir and encouraged separatism and terrorism. Now Kashmiris will get the same rights under our Constitution as people in other Indian states”.
Without naming Pakistan, he took a swipe at that country’s encouragement of terrorism and extremism, and asked the question: “Where can the conspirators behind the 9/11 and 26/11 attacks be found?” Calling for a united fight to end terrorism, he lauded President Trump “for fighting terrorism with every resource at his command”.
Modi is expected to carry forward the terrorism theme at the UN General Assembly this week.
Modi’s address included a laundry list of his government’s achievements: from building toilets to rural roads, cooking gas connections in villages to opening bank accounts for more than 300 million people for the first time. He referred to his signature campaign ‘Digital India’ which had enabled the central and state governments to deliver public services online, cheaply and conveniently.
Describing “data as the new oil”, he said it was being delivered to the Indian public at the cheapest rate possible, around 30 U.S. cents for 1 GB. But India was not resting on its laurels, he said. “We are challenging ourselves, we are changing ourselves. Indians want faster growth, we are aiming to achieve higher.”
He said the target of achieving a $5 trillion economy was feasible, indicating that “incrementalism” was over and the government was pushing hard on key transformational initiatives.
Modi may have given the impression he was delivering an election campaign speech, when he’s already won his election. But with polls in two key states due later next month, and aware his every public event draws eyeballs across India and even internationally, the Prime Minister was leveraging his star appeal with the U.S. president by his side.