Politicians from both sides of the aisle attended the controversial Narendra Modi’s rally in Houston. Liam Glen writes on the bipartisan push to ignore the right-wing populist’s abuses of power.
On September 22, supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a “Howdy Modi” summit in Houston, Texas. With a crowd of around 50,000, it was an epic show of Indian-American partnership.
A bipartisan slate of American politicians also attended. Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner presented Modi with the Key to the City of Houston. Speakers ranged from Senator Ted Cruz to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
And of course, President Donald Trump himself came to speak for nearly half an hour on topics ranging from shared values between Indians and Americans to NBA basketball, to illegal immigration.
The summit had multiple purposes but as the name suggests, its main goal was to heap praise unto a singular man. Above all, the event was a political rally for Prime Minister Modi to show off his international credentials. And American lawmakers gladly accommodated him.
Even for the most praiseworthy of world leaders, this would be an odd occurrence. For Modi, it is jarring.
His right-wing populist policies have faced endless criticism both within India and abroad. And summit came on the heels of his administration’s controversial actions in Kashmir. The warmness of his welcome reveals a severe lapse in judgment on the part of American leaders.
Lodestar of Illiberalism
Modi first came to the US’s attention when the State Department denied him a visa in 2005, while he was serving as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat.
This was a response to religious riots that took place under Modi’s watch in 2002. According to the official death toll, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed. Modi’s government was widely condemned for its inaction during the massacres.
When he became prime minister in 2014, however, the US quietly swept the incident under the rug. Much of his premiership has focused on economic issues, but a dark underbelly is evident.
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are part of a hardcore Hindu nationalist movement that has competed with the universalist vision promoted by the likes of Mohandas Gandhi since the days of the Indian independence movement.
On the eccentric side, this includes a large amount of state-sponsored pseudoscience. In 2017, for instance, the minister of higher education said that students should be taught about “ancient technology” such as flying chariots mentioned in ancient Hindu texts.
On a much more serious note, Modi has remained silent during an epidemic of mob violence in the country. Many of the most infamous cases involve “cow vigilantes” who lynch Muslims and others accused of being involved in beef production.
In 2018, his government stripped four million people in the eastern state of Assam, most of whom are Muslim, of their citizenship. The burden of proof was placed on residents to show that they were not illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Donald Trump’s speechwriters seem to have taken note of this event, as the president’s remarks in Houston included a mention that “border security is vital to India.”
Modi’s controversies entered the world stage in early August of 2019 when his government revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority northwestern state of Kashmir and Jammu. In Houston, Modi justified this as a way to justify equal rights to the citizens of the region.
This would surely be a shock to the people living in Kashmir, who are still languishing under de facto martial law. Citizens in much of the region are subject to a strict curfew, and the Indian government has cut off their access to the internet and other communications. By mid-August, it was reported that 4,000 people had been arbitrarily arrested in the state.
How much civility democratic politicians should show to authoritarians and other distasteful leaders is an open question. Ambiguous situations will eventually come up.
The “bromance” that President Obama had with Modi could be justified as a good working relationship between world leaders. Grand events like Trump’s summits with Kim Jong-un, someone with a good claim to the title of evilest man alive, came with the greater goal of denuclearization.
The Howdy Modi summit, however, is unjustifiable. It was a bipartisan celebration of a far-right demagogue that came during the height of the international controversy in Kashmir.
If nothing else, lawmakers should have been weary of America’s standing with Pakistan, which is both an important strategic partner of the US and the strongest international critic of Modi’s actions in Kashmir.
But few seemed cognizant of this. Democrat Al Green declined to attend the event due to Trump’s presence. But for all of his criticism of the president’s bigotry, he failed to mention any of the countless incidents for which Modi is responsible.
House Majority Leader Hoyer’s speech contained multiple mentions to democracy and secularism, along with references to Gandhi and Nehru, heroes of the Indian political tradition opposite to Modi’s. It is unclear whether this was a passive-aggressive swipe at the Hindu nationalist or a case of severe ignorance.
But even if the irony was an intention, it did little to harm Modi. The event did everything he could have wanted to show his unwavering support among US leaders.
If politicians who support democratic values want to stand against the global surge in illiberalism, the first step would be to stop praising leaders like Modi and instead show solidarity with those whose lives and liberty are threatened by their policies.