The Impact Of "Howdy, Modi" On PM, Trump And NRIs

To be born in one place and to make your life in another is, the poets tell us, like splitting your heart in two. Whether exile, immigrant or refugee, the plight of the non-resident is to strive forever to resolve these two contradictory halves of your soul.

Unless you're an NRI. Then you don't bother. Instead, you live with cognitive dissonance that would mentally cripple lesser people. You preserve in your own mind and in your immediate family a memory of India as pure, unsullied, spiritual and untouched by dirty modernity, but you are also constantly enraged at the thought that someone, somewhere, might think India is not as modern as anywhere else. You relentlessly scrutinise the editorial pages of The New York Times and the utterances of your friends and neighbours for a single stray thought that might somehow distantly imply the inferiority of India or Indians, but you would think nothing of saying the same, bluntly, to those of your friends or family luckless enough to still be stranded in the mother country. You are proud of the reach of Indian "soft power" like yoga, while deeply disapproving of the fact that all these young white people in stretchy yoga pants are happily despoiling and appropriating our cultural heritage. You think dynastic politics in India is backward and icky, but you voted for Hillary Clinton. You are appalled at any hint of majoritarianism or racism in the country in which you now live, but you virtuously and emphatically uphold casteism and religious bigotry "at home". Most importantly, you never ever feel that any of these ideas may contradict each other.

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Prime Minister Modi, in the US for a week-long visit, was joined by President Trump at a public event in Houston, Texas

That's why I have to wonder if the sight of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi walking hand-in-hand through cheering NRI crowds at a stadium in Houston would give anyone pause. After all, Indian-Americans voted overwhelmingly - 80 per cent in 2016 - against Trump. Will the obvious similarity in the two leaders' attitudes, their political orientation and their populist personas cause any of these non-resident Modi fans to stop for a moment and consider the contradictions of their own opinions? One wonders.

Modi fans in the diaspora come in many different varieties. There is the depressed uncle type, who basically thinks that Modi's muscular policies and claims to a 56-inch chest finally means he can be proud of Indian machismo. Then there is the relatively under-informed techie, who probably believes, alongside Trump, that Modi's government has lifted 300 million people out of poverty. (He hasn't.) There is the vacuously left-wing second-generation millennial, who thinks religious bigotry is awful but Hindutva is simply pushing back against imperialism, cultural appropriation, Euro-centrism, or what have you. There are those who have suffered for decades under a barely concealed inferiority complex, who believe the propaganda that Modi has for the first time brought respect to India and Indian leadership. (Aside: Kennedy respectfully met Nehru right at the airport, not at a stadium; Obama can't stop praising Manmohan Singh; and David Cameron just this week called Singh a "saintly man" who was nevertheless "robust" about the Pakistani threat.)

It is true, however, that few Indian politicians have been as publicly welcoming of NRI adulation as Modi has. On one level, this may appear to be canny international relations: a reminder to host countries that the NRI community is visible, productive and powerful. This should not be discounted as a strategic asset to India. But I do not think that at the Modi-Trump rally, this was really underlying the agenda or the announcements. Few substantive agreements were announced there; that discussion will take place in back rooms and crucially depends on what each side is willing to give. Hopefully, Indo-US trade tensions, which have exploded in recent years, can be defused - India might have to give up its restrictions on electronics and medical equipment imports, and perhaps Trump's hobbyhorse of Harley-Davidson motorcycles; the US might restore preferential treatment for some imports from India that were allowed to expire last year.

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More than 50,000 Indian-Americans attended the "Howdy, Modi!" event in Houston on Sunday

None of this was really the subject of the rally. Instead, there the rhetoric and the messaging mattered, as you would expect from leaders like Trump and Modi. The PM in particular took the opportunity to take a few well-aimed and justifiable swings at Pakistan and Imran Khan. Certainly, Trump's reference to "border security" and the cheers that greeted Modi's reference to Article 370's revocation suggest that Kashmir is firmly off the US' agenda - but, again, we will have to see what the US media reports after Trump meets Khan later this week. Simply put, the rally - like other NRI events before it - was not about substantive announcements at all. What was signaled by such a huge rally, then? Simply that in spite of their very real disagreements, India and the US are now close partners, and that NRIs are a crucial but incomplete part of that story. Few other national leaders - perhaps Israel's Netanyahu - could imagine having such a rally on US soil and having the president turn up.

But such rallies aren't, at their base, about international relations at all but about how much Modi himself owes to NRIs. His image, in the dark days of the post-Gujarat 2000s, was largely a creation of his online NRI fan-base. It was they who reinvented the "Hindu Hriday Samrat" of 2002 as a "Vikas Purush", and who - before most Indians were online - made social media and the blogosphere the preserve of Modi fandom. It was NRIs who provided the energy, expertise and juice to Modi's campaign to be chosen the BJP candidate for PM prior to 2013. Even before social media trolling of journalists became our national sport, it was NRIs who would make repeated ISD calls to newspaper offices in Delhi complaining about "biased" coverage of the Gujarat Chief Minister. If our frequent flier PM sometimes feels like a non-resident to us in India, it is because his most loyal constituency is indeed non-residents. Perhaps that makes sense: they are not the ones suffering through demonetization, a government-induced economic slowdown, lynching, and the slow debasement of every Indian institution.

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In his introduction, PM Modi described President Trump as "a very special person"

Am I being unfair to NRIs? Almost certainly. After all, the adulatory crowd in Houston may not even be representative of the best of the Indian-American community. Only one Congressman of Indian descent turned up, others, like Ro Khanna of California or Pramila Jayapal of Seattle have been strong progressive voices and allies of those in India worried about human rights abuses in Kashmir or the growth of cow vigilantism. This month, Jayapal tweeted about Kashmir, and Khanna - who flirted with Sangh outfits and Modi earlier in his career - said it was his duty as a Hindu to "reject Hindutva". Perhaps these - and progressive comedians like Hasan Minhaj - are the real voices of Americans of Indian descent; if so, I should be prouder of NRIs.

Let's hope so, and let's hope that we are just one generation away from a more constructive sort of Indian diaspora in the West. For other exile communities, the struggle to rejoin the two halves of their soul is itself its own reward: it produces great literature, transcendent poetry, music and painting. Consider literature: Polish Jews produced Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Chinese diaspora had Yu Guanghzhong, even the prosaic English had Rupert Brooke claiming forever a corner of a foreign field for England. The Indian diaspora, meanwhile, has given us Modi's Twitter trolls. As a people, we can surely do better.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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