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Donald Trump Is Holding a Rally With… Narendra Modi?

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a hugger—a bear-like man who bonds with people through tight embraces. His hugging aligns with his firm belief in the value of personal diplomacy. Contravening diplomatic norms, he often goes to the airport to directly greet foreign dignitaries. He’s invited both American presidents who have overlapped with his tenure, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, to visit India. Like Trump himself, Modi is committed to glad-handing, believing that the personal touch is the best way to overcome international disagreements.

Modi will get to test his faith in person on Sunday when he shares the stage with Trump in an event in Houston, Texas titled “Howdy, Modi!” Scheduled to take place in a stadium that seats 50,000, the rally will be a testament to Modi’s popularity not just in India, where he recently won a landslide re-election, but among the broader South Asian diaspora.

Trump’s presence at the rally is an unusual one, and it comes at a time when the U.S. State Department is criticizing India for tightening its grip on the troubled region of Kashmir, detaining local political leaders and cutting off communications with the outside world. There is increasing concern that Kashmir will simply be annexed into India outright, ending a decades long period where its status was being negotiated between India and its neighbor Pakistan. Varghese George, an expert on American-Indian relations, told The Washington Post that by attending the rally Trump was giving “virtual approval” to Modi’s aggressive Kashmir policy.

Trump’s courtship of Modi springs from many sources, some of which predate both leaders. India and the United States had chilly relations for many decades after the subcontinent achieved independence in 1947, in large part due to the policy of non-alignment established by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Cold War America took non-alignment as being close to covert pro-communism and much preferred Pakistan to India.

The end of the Cold War and the global war on terrorism have changed this dynamic. Since the 1990s, American foreign policy experts came to see India as a potential bulwark against China. India, under Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, has been receptive to American overtures, particularly the promise of a closer military alliance. The two hurdles to closer ties remain Kashmir (India has resisted repeated American offers to mediate) and trade (India has opened itself to foreign capital but not nearly to the degree the United States wants).

In 2015, Obama and Modi signed a “US–India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region” which greatly intensified military cooperation between the two countries.
But if Trump’s solicitude towards Modi fits in with longstanding bipartisan goal, it also has a particularly Trumpian stamp.

Trump and Modi are very similar figures in many ways. Modi is an authoritarian nationalist whose political party (the BJP) has demagogically exploited Islamophobia to gain power. As The Washington Monthly argues, Modi has “made India a less tolerant place for minorities. Religious hate crimes have increased more than fivefold since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014. Most of the perpetrators are part of the country’s vast Hindu majority. Most of the victims belong to the country’s population of 190 million Muslims.”

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