As far as optics go, it can’t get bigger than Howdy, Modi! – a dream win-win mega show for leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies, with the pair of leaders exchanging endless warm fuzzies physically and verbally for all the world to see and listen.
Now billed as the largest ever public event featuring an overseas head of government that has been attended by an American President on American soil (President Trump even compared it to an Elvis event), Howdy, Modi! went much beyond just optics.
It will have implications on a whole spectrum of ongoing and future developments in world affairs; the United States’ own presidential elections next year as well as the important assembly elections in key Indian states next month.
And this is not to mention the strong signal from the two leaders on their resolve to combat radical Islamic terrorism – as clearly spelled out by President Trump in his speech. He received a 15-second standing ovation from the nearly 60,000-strong crowd as he paused for effect after making that pronouncement.
Prime Minister Modi, without naming India’s troubled western neighbour, said everything that there was to be said about its adoption of terrorism as state policy down several decades with little intervention from the international community including previous US administrations.
Mr Modi was pointed in asking the audience the rhetorical question: Where were the perpetrators of 9/11 in New York and 26/11 in Mumbai eventually found, in an obvious reference to Pakistan’s funding, encouraging and harbouring global terrorists.
Both leaders voiced in no uncertain terms their pledge to protect the sovereignty of their respective countries and protect their borders, to long applause from the mainly Indian and sub-continental audience that had gathered from across the United States, a fine representation of the four million Indian Americans, as acknowledged by Mr Trump.
For Mr Trump the event was a one-stop opportunity to address one of America’s most affluent, educated and politically aware and participative segment of migrants. There will not be another opportunity for him ahead of the elections next year.
And he did it with great elan – getting on Mr Modi’s side and heaping praise repeatedly to the delight of the audience and Mr Modi returning the favour, at times cloyingly, concluding with “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar.” One could be forgiven if they were to think it was an election rally.
While Mr Trump publicly reposed faith in the Indian Prime Minister for sorting out issues with Pakistan, he later renewed his offer to mediate but only if India wanted to – something that India has firmly but politely refused to date. Not that the Trump administration would have any issues with that.
Trade-wise, the two leaders announced mega investment projects and joint collaborations in military hardware and weapons systems production. Both leaders were gung-ho on cross-investment initiatives, which would be great news for two way trade and economic relations between the two countries
On the geopolitical stage, the messaging was equally clear: the US had found a strong and abiding friend in India to take on together inimical geopolitical forces, particularly from authoritarian regimes that wanted to muscle in economically especially using less than fair trade practices, territorially and militarily.
Without mentioning it so many words, the leaders made it clear through sheer optics and the sense of bonhomie between them (hugs and holding hands as well as repeatedly making statements of reposing faith in each other) that this was the biggest visible boost to the Indo Pacific alignment.
(This message about the Indo Pacific alignment should be hopefully enough for certain Australian academics who have recently interpreted the ‘Indo’ in Indo Pacific to mean Indonesia instead of India).
Interestingly, the first ever Indo-US tri-services exercise involving the armies, navies and air forces of both countries gets under way in the next little while in the Indian Ocean region. In subsequent exercises, the Australian forces will also join in. This will undoubtedly the most definitive display to date of the Indo Pacific alignment.
While they made global security, trade, the economy and leadership the subject of their talk at the event, both avoided reference to climate change – an extremely sensitive issue with Mr Trump, but which Mr Modi is more attuned to. Aides on both sides obviously must have decided to leave it aside, which is indeed disappointing.
However, that topic was brought centerstage with gusto at the UN in New York just days later by a sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, who has since set the internet on fire much to the chagrin of some people, some of whom have spewed characteristic hate messages, so typical of online dissenters – but that’s another story.
Prime Minister Modi left it to his Foreign Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to deal with the specifics on Pakistan after the Howdy, Modi! event. He famously went on record saying while India was ready for any talks with Pakistan, it was firm in not holding talks with ‘Terroristan’. That summed up India’s messaging on its predicament with dealing with Pakistan.
Never before in the history of independent India has the country come out so strongly internationally. India is no longer a weak-voiced pushover in international matters, particularly those in which its sovereignty and the integrity of its international borders – and it will no longer be cowed down by anybody or any pressure when it comes to dealing with these issues, no matter what resources at its disposal it might need to deploy.
Dev Nadkarni is Editor-at-Large of The Indian Weekender