New Delhi ignored the fact that Congress is a co-equal branch of government and focused all attention only on the president.
By Vappala Balachandran
One cannot recall a more myopic example of statecraft in recent times than the Indian diplomacy in America, which had placed all bets on former President Donald Trump’s re-election. The only reason one could think of was that both governments adhered to the “right wing” philosophy in governance. New Delhi might dispute this observation, but its efforts were far too conspicuous to draw any other conclusion.
For example, New Delhi might argue that the mega event “Howdy Modi” on September 22, 2019, addressed by President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was organized entirely by anonymous Texas volunteers, and not by the BJP or the Government of India. However, that was not the impression one gathered from the press conference of Vijay Chauthaiwale, BJP’s Overseas Affairs Head, on October 3, 2019, when he repeatedly spoke on what “we did” for the event.
They might also contend, like Chauthaiwale, that Modi’s remark during the rally — “Ab ki bar Trump sarkar” (“Now is the turn of Trump government”) — was not meant as canvassing for Trump but a reference to the US president’s own speech at the “Republican Hindu Coalition”. In other words, there was no violation of 52 US Code 30121, which bars foreign help during US elections.
However, Trump’s press conference on September 4, 2020, invoking his friendship with Prime Minister Modi and citing their joint rallies to canvas Indian American support for his re-election contradicted these arguments. Trump had then said: “We have great support from India. We have great support from Prime Minister Modi. I would think that the Indian (American) people would be voting for Trump.” Videos shown by the Trump campaign included their joint conventions in Texas and at Motera near Ahmedabad (India) on February 24, 2020.
In fact, Trump had prefaced his trip to India on February 11, 2020, making clear his priorities for the visit when he told a White House audience that “He (Prime Minister Modi) said we’ll have millions and millions of people”.
As a result, there is a serious concern that the historical bipartisanship existed within the Indian American community has already been weakened by a religious polarization of the community. This is against the long-term interests of the community. For decades, the effectiveness of various Indian American campaigns was due to their bipartisan nature.
READ: With Trump behind in polls, India appears to be preparing Plan B (September 24, 2020)
This fear is confirmed by the presence of some Indian Americans, notably Vishwa Hindu Sangathan (VHS) activists, among the white supremacist mob that attacked on the US Capitol on January 6. This will no doubt lead to deeper Justice Department inquiries on the relationship of the US-based Hindu radicals with the white nationalist movement and their funding, which is now a major security concern in the United States. More so, it would lead to accusations against a few Indian American community leaders that they also were part of the “conspiracy” theorist camps, which had led to the Capitol Hill attack. This is going to defame the entire Indian American community.
The Narendra Modi government also ignored the fact that the American Constitution, unlike in India, had vested independent powers with three separate branches. The Congress was given “all legislative powers” by Article One of the US Constitution. Article Two granted “executive powers” to the president. Article Three conferred all “judicial powers” to the Supreme Court. In addition, James Madison also introduced “Auxiliary Precautions” as “checks and balances”, allowing each branch to check and balance the others.
In India, the prime minister is the final repository of real powers. In the US, the president is not. As Hedrick Smith wrote in his monumental work “The Power Game-How Washington Works” (1988), “Power floats — it shifts and does not reside in the White House; The president is always part of the power mix but not necessarily the central part.”
The Modi government ignored this and focused all attention only on the president, ignoring the importance of Congress. Otherwise, the unsavory incident described by US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal in her op-ed in “Washington Post” on December 24, 2019, would not have happened. This was considered as an insult to Indian Americans, as Jayapal is the first Indian American woman to serve in the House of Representatives.
READ: Trump likes ‘great gentleman’ Modi a lot (May 29, 2020)
That happened when the visiting Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reportedly informed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel that he would not attend a meeting on Capitol Hill if Rep. Jayapal was present. The reason appeared to be because she had co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution in Congress to uphold human rights in Kashmir. Engel refused the minister’s request saying that “it was wholly inappropriate for any foreign government to try to dictate which members of the Congress participate in meetings on Capitol Hill.” Jayapal later revealed that her two other scheduled meetings with the Indian ambassador “prior to even drafting the resolution” were cancelled.
This unpleasant incident had resulted in needless acrimony. Had our diplomats studied the methodology needed for successful congressional liaison to prevent or modulate such legislative measures, they would have realized that advance discussions with congressional committees or even with congressional staff was the necessary step that was needed. Congresswoman Jayapal also revealed that Chairman Engel was even prepared to postpone the mark up of her resolution in the House so that they could hear what Jaishankar had to say. That opportunity was lost due to the minister’s refusal to attend the meeting.
Finally, did Trump guard India’s interests as desired by the Modi government? The former president did nothing of that sort. According to “India West,” the Republican Hindu Coalition had presented a list of 6 demands to Candidate Trump, including an ultimatum that he should take a clear stand approving India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, a controversial measure passed in December 2019 that grants citizenship to undocumented Indians but excludes Muslims”.
It also quoted Shalabh Kumar, founder of the Coalition, saying that Trump “had backed off from taking a stand on India’s revocation of Article 370, which provided special autonomous status to the Kashmir region”. Also, Trump’s January 14, 2021, “parting shot” to India redefined ”employer-employee” relationship for the H-1B program making it more difficult for US-based companies to hire Indian IT workers.
The net result is that the Modi government’s diplomatic project directed to woo President Trump by enlisting the religious segment among Indian Americans and also neglecting congressional Democrats was in vain. Fortunately, the Indian American community can regain its bipartisan and multi-religious shape and recover its effectiveness under President Joe Biden along with a Democrat-dominated Congress.
(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of, among other works, A life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar.)
Read more from Vappala Balachandran:
Two tragic events in UP distort idea of ‘New India’ (October 3, 2020)
Trump’s India visit: An election oriented trip to court Indian American voters (February 21, 2020)