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“Howdy Modi” No More?

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The past, present and future of US-India relations. Modi has used a political style that mirrors that of Donald Trump and that has allowed for India and U.S.A. to be politically close over the past four years. How is that bound to change with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris entering the White House?

On the morning of May 21, 2019, my family and I were taken aback as we flipped through news channels across Indian TV announcing the same thing: the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reelected by a landslide. As non-resident Indians (NRIs) living in the Middle East, the news has been a prime link connecting us to home. In the weeks leading up to election day, Modi’s economic and foreign policy actions were heavily scrutinized by the media. India’s contracting economy and rising tension on border with Pakistan, provoked by an airstrike just months before elections seemed like strong grounds to give Modi a win by a slim margin at most.

However, Modi’s sweeping win was not all that surprising to our friends and family in the Middle East who support his “masculine” leadership style. Since running for his first term as prime minister in 2014, Modi was able to concoct an image of component and masculine leadership, which was served in batches to the public by Indian mass media. Self-proclaimed as the savior of “Mother India”, he ridiculed India’s defensive foreign policy measures led by past PMs. This is why when Modi directed airstrikes to Pakistani borders, it was seen as a display of brute nationalistic masculinity and a major plus in the eyes of many Indians both within and outside India.

Since re-election in 2019, Modi and his political party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – founded on the belief that India is the land of Hindus[1] – have aggressively persisted to establish a Hindu-nationalist agenda. The first blow was struck when the administration moved quickly to revoke the autonomous status of Muslim majority Kashmir and kept the region under a communications shutdown for months. This was followed by a legal jab to Muslim refugees seeking asylum in India who are now dismissed on the basis of their religion with the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Political actions like these have led to mass scale religious violence and protests across the country that was only brought to a stop at the advent of COVID 19 in India.

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Modi’s political style relies heavily on his perceivable “strongman” public persona. This reliance on personality appeal closely mirrors that of his dear friend Donald Trump. While Modi uses the law to vocalize his far-right beliefs and his charisma as a cover for a more insidious nationalistic agenda, his comrade Trump outwardly voices his support for white supremacists, mistrust in the political left, science, and the constitution. His brazen attitude has garned a cult-like following of those tainted by the disease of “Trumpism”. Although Trump lost the popular vote in the 2020 elections, it must be noted that over 10 million more Americans have voted for him since 2016. Consequently, it comes to me as no surprise that both Modi and Trump are magnetically drawn to each other’s infectious personalities.

Modi and Trump’s international bromance has been documented by several pictures of the two leaders sharing a long embrace, hands held firmly together to an audience of enthusiastic Trump and Modi supporters in rallies held by each leader to welcome the other to their country. During his presidency, Trump has spoken highly of his friend Modi, upon several occasions – most notably on his last visit to India where he noted his utmost belief that PM Modi “works for the people of his country” while 17 lost their lives under a violent protest in India’s capital New Delhi. Additionally, on more than one occasion Trump offered to mediate border conflict between India and Pakistan but never once has he commented on any of Modi’s hostile acts towards Muslims in India.

One reason why Trump has been persistent to win over Modi is that he hoped to consolidate the vote of 1.2 million Indian American votes from the key swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas – where Trump hosted the “Howdy Modi” rally to welcome the Indian Prime Minister to the USA. Historically, Indian Americans have voted Democrat. The GOP hoped to capture the vote of this key demographic that makes up more than 1% of all eligible voters in the 2020 elections.

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However, a study done by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shows that the GOP were not as successful as they would like to believe. The study surveyed over 2 million Indian Americans who would be voting in 2020. They found that over 72% of Indian Americans would vote Biden and just 22% would Trump. Additionally, the study also found that only 3% of Indian American voters view the US-INDIA ties as an important factor in their choice for president – which puts a significant shame to the efforts Trump has exerted to convince Indians (both within and outside the states) of the love America has for them.

One of the most important points of this study was that 45% of this demographic said that they were now more likely to vote with Harris on the ticket as VP. Vice President Elect Kamala Harris is a half-black, half-Indian lawyer who upon many occasions has displayed her connection to family in both Jamaica and India. Her mother hails from the South Indian city of Chennai where billboards adorned with Harris’s face were launched as soon as the news that Biden had won the presidency was announced.  As a lawyer, Harris has actively stated her opposition to Modi’s foreign policy measures. Harris’ appeal as VP elect draws heavily on her historic standing on the basis of gender and race and less so on her contentious career as a prosecutor.

Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the Harris nomination has won the hearts of Indians all over the world in a way that is different from Trump’s aspirations to woo the Indian diaspora through transitivity via his friendship with Modi. I have had family actively seeking to learn about Harris with a sense of pride saying that one of their own has made it. From where we stand, the future of Harris’ approach to leadership is yet to be seen. Despite her strong stance against the current PM’s policies, I, as well as my fellow Indians remain optimistic to what Harris brings to the table.

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[1] A follower of the religion Hinduism is called a Hindu

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3rd year BSc Economic and Social Sciences.
I write about politics, society, psychology and anything in between.

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