On Monday afternoon, the leader of the world’s most powerful country will touch down in Ahmedabad. For the next 36 hours India will roll out the red carpet for Donald Trump, beginning with a road show from the airport to the new cricket stadium in the company of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Coincidentally or otherwise, Gujarat is also the home to the Patels, who at one time dominated the motel trade in the US—one facet of the soft power through which Indian expats, unlike their counterparts from across the border who find mention for less charitable reasons, have come to define themselves in the US. In fact, they have provided the glue with which the two democracies, one which is the oldest and the other, with its 1.3 billion population, the largest, have repaired their otherwise dysfunctional relationship.
Ironically, it all started with the presidency of Bill Clinton, which actually by its errors of omission gave Pakistan a free pass to evolve as the global terror factory—the primary target was India, but within two years of Clinton’s errors of omissions struck home in the tragic developments of 9/11. Towards the end of his presidency Clinton, nudged on by a bunch of influential non-resident Indians or NRIs on the East coast, undertook a brief visit to India; even though he was a lame duck President the visit was significant as it acknowledged the big shift in India’s foreign policy undertaken by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he abandoned the non-aligned formula and embarked on a game changing bilateral relationship with the US. It was also the first visit by a US president in two decades.
Till that moment, the NRIs, who were blamed for triggering the economic meltdown in 1991 when they voted with their feet and liquidated their foreign currency accounts held in India, had been treated as pariahs. It was, once again Vajpayee, who went out of the way and sought them out during his visits to the US as prime minister. It was also around this time that the Indian software story inspired by the likes of TCS, Infosys and Wipro, was beginning to shape the Indian narrative in the US. Such was the impact that almost inevitably every Indian landing in the US got asked the question whether he or she was a “techie”.
Under George W. Bush, who took over the presidency in 2001, India-US relations acquired a new hue; it was under his leadership that the US State Department did a rethink on its cold-war logic viewing India in a poor light. The tragic events of 9/11 brought home the fact that terrorists knew no borders as also the fact that Pakistan, despite being the recipient of so much of American largesse, was anything but a trustworthy ally. The emergence of China only renewed the American belief that a long-term relationship with India was a no-brainer.
Exactly why the White House started going out of the way to acknowledge the Indian expat community, estimated in 2010 at around 3 million, including for the first time the lighting of a token lamp (diya) by the US President to mark the celebration of Diwali. Soft power opened doors, when diplomacy found it difficult to wear down the cold-war prejudices. No surprise then that the Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams, inspired by the music of A.R. Rahman, made its appearance on Broadway in 2004; just like Indian cuisine, including street food (kathi rolls) from Kolkata, began to find its place in the American culinary lexicon. Similarly, American entertainment began to reflect and showcase Indian characters, sometimes even as co-leads in television serials.
More recently, the success of ‘Howdy Modi’ hosted in Houston, Texas too rode on the support of NRIs. Not surprising then that now when it is the turn of ‘Namaste Trump’ that the Indian expat is the bridge yet again, underlining the potential of soft power as a strategic tool of diplomacy.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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