Diaspora dynamics in 'Howdy Modi' to 'Namaste Trump'

Delhi Feb 25, 2020, 04.46 PM(IST) Written By: Anwesha Mohanty

Trump, Modi meeting in Ahmedabad Photograph:( PTI )

Story highlights

Both 'Howdy Modi' and 'Namaste Trump', have all the bearings of a changing world order that’s marked more by symbiotic compulsions rather than a Big Brother’s one-upmanship

When the American President, Donald Trump, addressing a 50,000 strong Indian - American crowd in Houston said, “I am so thrilled to be here at the great state of Texas with one of America’s greatest, most devoted and loyal friends, Prime Minister Modi”, the words and its associated impact, reverberated across the globe. 

This camaraderie has come full circle with 'Namaste Trump', where Trump’s opening remarks are seemingly manifested in his, “… America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”Such emphatic words are not entirely uncommon in Trump’s oration. However, the understated importance that his words carry for India and the Indian- American diaspora in this backdrop is laced with ambivalence.  

The point of interest, in his speech at Motera, is when he can be heard saying, “In America, we have come to know of the splendour of Indian culture through its 4 million Indian-Americans living in the United States. They are truly spectacular people. Indian Americans enrich every aspect of our national life. They are titans of business, pioneers of Science, masters of art, innovation and technology.” The Trump-Modi show, without a doubt, has loomed larger than life, but the underlined question remains: Who and what are both Modi and Trump, openly serenading? Answer to this stays with the political capital that the Indian- American diaspora brings to US-India ties. 

A value analysis of the diaspora optics makes for a moot point, in that, for a developing-world country like India, to be able to even get into the game of even, with the most enterprising nation in the world is in itself a huge plus for New Delhi and its current dispensation, catapulting Modi to a higher political stratosphere. 

In Howdy, Modi, the optics and crowd size appeared to be Trump’s main motivations to take the unprecedented step of attending a large ethnic rally for a foreign leader. In the same fashion, Namaste Trump follows suit, in what appears as though Indian side thinks of the optics (and) the event mobilisation as something of a deliverable. 

The Modi rally in Houston was an opportunity for Trump to present himself as a supporter of legal immigrants while opposing illegal immigration - "We are proud to have you as Americans," Trump said, praising the Indian diaspora for accepting American values. This, I think, makes for an interesting observation. He seems to send across a view of holding this diaspora as the kind of immigrants he would like for America. Indian Americans comprise the second biggest sub-group of Asian immigrants after the Chinese. According to the Pew Research Centre, Indians are the highest-earning ethnic group in the US, with a median income of $100,000, which is almost double that of the national median, and also the highest of any ethnic group in the US.  

Stands in juxtaposition to Trump’s glorification of the Indian-American diaspora is his immigration policies. 'Namaste Trump' which was predicated on 'Howdy Modi', has garnered enough pomp, but has it managed to walk the talk, is something one needs to closely understand. The Indian-American community is currently suffering the brunt of the US’ tightened policy on the H1B visa, a non-immigrant document for temporary workers, of which they are the largest beneficiary – nearly 76 per cent of all H1B holders are Indian. In addition to it, Trump’s affirmations to revoke the H-4 work permit for the spouses of H1B visa holders, which will render thousands of Indians unable to work in the US. 

A sharp decline in US visas provided to highly skilled workers can be seen affecting the diaspora adversely. The point of contention here is, Trump’s rhetoric of pitting one “model” minority against another does not and will not bode well with the community. Trump has billed Asians and Indians as model minorities who were “skilled” and had entered the country the legal way, as opposed to others, mostly from Central and Latin America, who did so illegally. 

That said, there is enough reason to believe that a bulk of the Indian-American community loves Modi, as evidenced by how actively the community supported him earlier this year when he was seeking re-election. As US citizens, they could not vote, but that did not stop them from campaigning hard, with some travelling to India. In trying to tie the two subsets together with an overarching structure, it compels us to look at the diaspora diplomacy in the backdrop of a larger Modi-Trump narrative vis-à-vis Indian – Americans as agents of mobilisation.

Both 'Howdy Modi' and 'Namaste Trump', have all the bearings of a changing world order that’s marked more by symbiotic compulsions rather than a Big Brother’s one-upmanship that the globe is currently witnessing. Since Indian-Americans are overwhelmingly a Democrat, the fact that they can be supportive of Hindu supremacists while dissenting against right-wing White Supremacists (in the US) is telling of a diaspora who is not overtly subservient to the larger politics at play.  

Add to that, a programme arranged entirely by and for the Indian diaspora in America, to offer a public podium to a visiting prime minister, had well and truly transcended the protocol-bound, dogmatic plane of diplomacy and immersed itself into a celebration of Indo-US ties, whereby, the holders of the highest public offices in the world’s largest and oldest democracies not only walked in terms of their shared concerns for areas of common interests, but were also seen holding hands, literally, for much of their public appearance together.

All is not white and black for this subgroup, but due credit can be attested to the diaspora, who has worked tirelessly in ensuring their status quo and keeping at it, while the future inroads and crossroads made with events like 'Howdy Modi' and 'Namaste Trump' dictate a different tomorrow for India-US ties.  

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)  

Anwesha Mohanty

The author is a Research Intern at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.