“Howdy Modi” may seem an exceptionally strange way of addressing India’s Prime Minister, except perhaps in Texas. Fortunately, it was an event in Houston, Texas, that billed a diaspora outreach programme of Narendra Modi in this fashion. The labelling, however, is secondary. What is more relevant is that, having done a spectacular programme at New York’s Madison Square Garden shortly after his election victory in 2014, Modi chose another major American city to connect with the Indian diaspora this Sunday.
The event having been fully subscribed, it is certain that the capacity crowd of 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora will greet him enthusiastically, just as they did at the UNESCO building auditorium in Paris on Friday. It is also certain that in his speech, the Prime Minister will spend some time explaining the rationale behind the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A from Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The careful cultivation of the Indian diaspora by Modi is often seen by cynics as a needless indulgence. In the past, visiting Indian Prime Ministers had met select notables from the overseas Indian community but no one had bothered to reach out to those who were not regarded as important to India’s diplomatic or commercial needs. Modi has broken this social and class barrier and reached out to every social category.
Moreover, he has reoriented the work of Indian missions overseas. Whereas the diaspora was earlier seen as an irritant to the more pressing business of evolving grand strategy, Modi has added service to the diaspora (and trade) to the functions of Indian missions overseas. When she was External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj went out of her way to make overseas Indians and Indians travelling abroad feel that they could approach Indian missions for help in case of difficulties.
Why is this outreach important in today’s context?
Since the beginning of August, following the government’s moves to ensure the full integration of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Constitution, India has been subjected to relentless attacks. Some of this was predictable since it was unlikely that a political shift of this magnitude wouldn’t evoke spirited protests. However, there is an additional dimension.
The point about Imran Khan’s speech to the Joint Session of Pakistan’s Parliament earlier this month that caught media attention was his near-categorical disavowal of retaliatory war which, in his view, was unaffordable given the nuclear dimension. However, does this mean that Pakistan has no other option but to surreptitiously sponsor a proxy war that will be conducted by either home-grown jihadis in India or non-state players from Pakistan?
The answer may lie in the larger thrust of Imran’s speech which appeared to many angry Pakistanis as being needlessly ponderous. In a sense it was. Imran claimed that India had reneged on its own Gandhian and Nehruvian inheritance by abandoning secularism in Kashmir and paving the way for a Hindu majoritarian state. To him, the full incorporation of a Muslim majority state was tantamount to India flaunting its ‘racist’ credentials with brazenness.
All that is familiar stuff. However, the subsequent two points are interesting. First, Imran argued that enlightened citizenship was identified by Jinnah in his August 11, 1947 speech. In other words, having spelt out the two-nation theory as the inescapable way out for Indian Muslims in the face of Hindu intolerance. However, having established a homeland for India’s Muslims—that naturally included Kashmir—he wanted to ensure the complete freedom of religious beliefs. That, he said, invoking Islamic history and the experience of the Medina settlement in the 7th century, is the basis of Pakistan. With somewhat twisted logic he sought to reconcile an Islamic state that is Pakistan with liberal notions of citizenship.
Second, he sought a massive outreach programme aimed at persuading the West, not merely of the righteousness of the Kashmir bid for self-determination, but the venality of the Indian state. In his view this was best done using liberal arguments that would appeal there. Without being explicit, he sought an unspoken alliance between the jihadis, the Islamists and the Muslim nationalists on the one hand and the human rights industry, the wet liberals and the campus radicals looking for a cause. Above all, he sought to draw in anyone who was pathologically opposed to the Modi government. All these divergent strands would be united in a grand alliance to undermine the moral backbone of Indian democracy. Meanwhile, presumably, the ISI would continue its covert backing of terrorism all over India, and not merely in the Kashmir Valley.
It is astonishing that this speech of Imran Khan—which no doubt has the endorsement of the ‘deep’ Pakistan state—hasn’t received greater attention in India. It is by far the most explicit elaboration of how Pakistan, from a position of weakness, is seeking to regain the upper hand. I know it is thought to be crude to join the shrill nationalist outrage against the tukde tukde gang. But should we bank on aesthetics to offer a kid glove treatment of those who—maybe unwittingly—are following a script written in Pakistan.
India’s liberals think they are virtuous and brave by resisting the will of the majority. I, however, see no virtue in becoming a puppet of a disagreeable neighbour. As our liberals feed the Pakistan narrative in the Western media, the campuses and in the literary salons, do they realise that Islamabad thinks of them as the proverbial ‘useful idiots’?
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.