Recently, a milestone laden with immense political consequence was crossed by the United States with the first anniversary of the federal government appointing a special counsel to oversee two criminal probes against former president Donald Trump.
Jack Smith, a long-time federal prosecutor, was appointed to watch over investigations into allegations of transgressing national security and being party to electoral malpractices against Trump. In the year since, the legal dragnet around him has become larger.
Given the seriousness of the charges against Trump, it is now imperative for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to explain the unprecedented political support he lent to Trump during his visit to the US in September 2019. With Lok Sabha polls due in months, an explanation at least, if not an expression of regret, is warranted at the earliest.
The prime minister owes a statement on record to the people. He must clarify why during that visit he gave the unjustifiable call for “Abki bar, Trump sarkar,” (This time, a Trump administration) – a near replay of his successful 2014 slogan – at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event organised by the Texas India Forum, at Houston.
Besides the two cases under Smith’s watch, Trump further stands indicted in an anti-corruption case involving moral turpitude, in New York. He faces trial on charges of paying sex hush money to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress.
Additionally, Trump is also accused of committing extremely grave electoral malpractices in the state of Georgia. This accusation mirrors one of the two federal cases. He also action in the case filed by journalist and author E. Jean Carroll where far-reaching allegations against Trump relate to rape and defamation.
Paradoxically, these developments will not impede Trump’s intended candidature in the 2024 presidential polls and are unlikely to prevent him from assuming office in January 2025, if elected. The peculiarity of American jurisprudence is such that in the event of such a development, Trump may well become the first American First Citizen to pardon himself.
But this does not permit Modi to remain silent over his grave indiscretion and an error of judgement in 2019. At the time of the visit, Modi was riding a crest after being re-elected with an enhanced majority and he possibly assumed that Trump too would be re-elected.
This reading was further reinforced when the US president visited India in February 2020 and the red carpet was rolled for him in Ahmedabad. It may be recalled that during his two-day visit beginning in Modi’s political bastion, Trump addressed a ‘Namaste Trump’ rally before an unprecedented one lakh plus audience at the Motera stadium (before it was renamed).
The rally followed a massive 22 km road show from the city’s airport to the stadium with Trump, his wife Melania and Modi at its head. Tens of thousands of people were lined up on both sides of sanitised streets. Giant billboards were put up for the event, called India Road Show by the city’s municipal corporation.
The event, while Delhi witnessed the most horrifying communal violence in the city’s recent history, was dubbed a rare instance of “two dynamic personalities” coming together for “one momentous occasion.”
An explanation from Modi for his inappropriate support to Trump when he had already begun campaigning for the 2020 polls which he eventually lost, is all the more inescapable because Modi has declared that in his re-election bid in 2024, corruption will be one of the principal pillars of the BJP’s electoral plank.
The plethora of raids and cases against the entire gamut of opposition parties and leaders are cited to buttress his claim and Modi is claiming to be a ceaseless crusader against graft. It would thereby be extremely duplicitous if Modi does not explain his error in 2019 in backing Trump.
The accusation against Trump in the New York case is that he bought Stormy Daniels’ silence. Because of the seriousness of the charge and prima facie evidence, Trump has become the first former US President to be indicted. He faces as many as 34 felony charges and can be sentenced to a maximum of a staggering 136 years.
Given the enormity of alleged crimes for which Trump faces multiple trials, it is essential for Modi to confess his lack of prior knowledge of the former president’s misdemeanours. Peculiarly, the silence of opposition parties on this matter so far is not just stupefying, but also indicative of their short memories.
Modi’s 2019 tour to the US opened with the community summit, Howdy Modi, at Houston, Texas with Trump by his side. A BBC report noted that the “personal-touch diplomacy with Mr Modi’s trademark bear hugs was played to perfection.”
This slogan, modelled on the BJP’s winning 2014 slogan, was claimed to have been picked up from a Trump video aimed at American voters of Indian origin.
Modi was not alone in his choice of hyperbolic praise. Trump too, in his speech, declared that the Indian premier was “one of America’s greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends.” He also endorsed Modi’s performance by declaring that Modi was consistently doing a “truly exceptional job for India” and its citizens.
The Congress party criticised Modi at that time for backing Trump. This forced foreign minister S. Jaishankar to assert that the prime minister had not endorsed Trump’s candidature, but merely reiterated words the American president used in a campaign video aimed at the American Indian community. But, for all practical purposes, it appeared that Modi was calling for Trump’s re-election in the impending 2020 polls in the US.
Politically, the most serious charge against Trump is related to electoral malpractice. In August, the former US president was indicted for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The specific charges are attempts to defraud the nation, tampering with witnesses, targeting citizen rights, and obstructing official proceedings.
Trump stands accused of being behind the storming and laying siege to the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to prevent the vice president at that time, Mike Pence, from certifying the presidential election in favour of the winner, Joe Biden, the incumbent.
Trump is further accused of pushing efforts to prepare fake elector slates and reverse the results from several states. This played a central role in Trump’s alleged “seven-part plan” to overturn the 2020 election results.
Given that in India in recent years, the impartiality of the Election Commission has been questioned, Modi’s decision to disregard Trump’s attempts at subverting the electoral system and not accept his personal miscalculation and injudiciousness will effectively mean that he condones the former President’s attempts.
This will further raise questions about Modi’s commitment to free and fair elections.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.