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Aswathhama hatha… dust over Modi speech

PM did speak of the past when he said ‘abki baar Trump sarkar’ but many heard plain endorsement
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures' event at NRG Stadium, Sunday, September 22, 2019, in Houston.

Anita Joshua   |   New Delhi   |   Published 02.10.19, 12:34 AM

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has asserted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not endorsing US President Donald Trump’s candidature for the 2020 elections when he said “ab ki baar Trump sarkar” at the “Howdy Modi” diaspora event in Houston on September 22.

“Please look very carefully at what the Prime Minister said. My recollection of what the Prime Minister said was that candidate Trump had used this (‘ab ki baar Trump sarkar’). So, the PM is talking about the past,” Jaishankar explained to reporters in Washington.

The Indian foreign minister was asked about the implications of Modi referring to the electoral slogan in his welcome address, given that the Trump campaign managers and even sections of the American media had seen the event as an endorsement.

“I don’t think we should, honestly, misinterpret what was said. I don’t think you’re doing a good service to anybody,’’ Jaishankar added.

The tape of the speech confirms that the Prime Minister did say “candidate Trump” had used the slogan. But the thrust of his speech and the atmosphere at the venue have been such that many heard in the reference to the slogan an open endorsement of Trump.

Jaishankar’s clarification prised open the debate on whether Modi had jeopardised the bipartisan support India-US relations has enjoyed in Washington by seemingly endorsing Trump before a gathering of over 50,000 Indian Americans — a community which has traditionally veered towards the Democrats.

While the Congress had flagged the issue soon after the Houston event itself, former president Rahul Gandhi joined issue after Jaishankar commented on the widely held perception that the comment was an endorsement for Trump.

“Thank you Mr Jaishankar for covering up our PM’s incompetence. His fawning endorsement caused serious problems with the Democrats for India. I hope it gets ironed out with your intervention. While you’re at it, do teach him a little bit about diplomacy,’’ Rahul tweeted, citing the PTI report from Washington quoting Jaishankar which was the first official comment on the issue flagged by many in the diplomatic corps.

Introducing Trump before the houseful gathering with the President standing beside him beaming, Modi had said: “Friends, we in India have connected well with President Trump. The words of candidate Trump ‘abki baar Trump sarkar’ rang loud and clear and his celebration of Diwali in the White House lit up millions of faces with joy and appreciation.”

It was Trump’s Democrat predecessor Barack Obama who began the practise of lighting the traditional diya in the Oval Office during Diwali in 2016 after doing so annually in his private quarters in the White House from his first year of presidency itself in 2009.

Trump’s own campaign managers saw the event as an endorsement for the President. Kayleigh McEnany, the national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 campaign, tweeted on September 23: “President @readDonaldTrump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they shared a stage in Houston, walking hand in hand… to address more than 50,000 Indian Americans.’’

A similar tweet was posted by Team Trump, the official Twitter for the Trump campaign: “President @readDonaldTrump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Modi!”

Prior to drawing attention to the President using Modi’s 2014 election slogan during his own campaign for presidency in October 2016 to woo the Indian community, the Prime Minister had also referred to Trump’s own campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.

“I admire him for something more, his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in American future and a strong resolve to make America great again (MAGA). And, he has already made the American economy strong again. He has achieved much for the United States and for the world,’’ Modi had said.

The American media saw it as an endorsement. White House bureau chief at The Washington Post Philip Rucker tweeted: “Indian Prime Minister Modi is delivering quite an enthusiastic endorsement, telling tens of thousands in Houston that he admires Trump’s “passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in American future and a strong resolve to make America great again!”

A Bloomberg article on the event — which was shared by the Trump campaign managers — said: “Sharing a stage in Houston and later walking hand-in-hand around a football stadium, Trump received Modi’s endorsement in front of more than 50,000 Indian Americans — an influential voter base.’’

Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science and director, Center for Contemporary South Asia, Brown University, articulated a similar view on Twitter and wondered how it would play out on bilateral relations. “Trump’s presence at Modi’s Houston rally undoubtedly enhances Modi. But Modi’s endorsement of Trump for the next US elections defies comprehension. It makes no sense for a foreign leader to show this kind of partisanship in US elections. Besides, we don’t know who will win 2020.”


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