US leadership unfollows on Twitter PM Narendra Modi and other Indian handles; does it really matter?
Although a number of theories are doing rounds explaining the development, there is no reason to believe that Donald Trump’s unpredictable ‘Twitter diplomacy’ can really impact the basic foundations of US-India relations that suit the needs of the time.
The political and media circles in India were left ‘dismayed’ and stunned after top administrative bodies and individuals in the United States unfollowed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ramnath Kovind, the Prime Minister’s Office, among others, just weeks after following them.
The nationalist section of the Indian media was ecstatic when the White House and President Donald Trump followed the Indian leadership after New Delhi accepted Washington’s request to lift the ban on the expert of hydroxychloroquine, considered a magic cure for the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump, who is firefighting the outbreak in an election year, said then that “extraordinary times require even closer cooperation between friends…” and that the US will not forget Modi’s help.
Three weeks later, that help was ‘forgotten’, as the Indian side complained. The White House unfollowed as many as six India-related handles triggering the allegations that America betrayed its friend despite it rushing in to help with the drug. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said he was “dismayed” by the development while critical voices on social media claimed it was an insult for India.
In its defense, the US later stated it is an official practice. The White House briefly follows accounts of officials from countries that the president visits. This is done to retweet the messages in support of the trip. Since Trump went to India in the last week of February with his wife, it was a logical conclusion that America’s power centers decided to follow the Indian leaders and agencies.
A casual unfollowing or a big diplomatic snub?
This entire episode of the US’ leaderships’ following and unfollowing the Indian establishment on Twitter is not above certain suspicions. Thanks to the notoriously moody US president, this has snowballed into an issue of major diplomatic concern. Was it Washington’s display of a diplomatic snub? Was Trump’s America ungrateful? Was it disapproval of the Modi government’s dubious record in upholding religious freedom in India? Or was it a balancing act since the White House doesn’t follow any international leader and Modi was the only one for the three-week period? Or was it just a casual breach of etiquette by Trump, something that comes easily to him?
It is not clear what the precise reason for this act of unfollowing is but it could be a combination of all the factors questioned above. The reasoning of ‘temporary following’ as presented by the officials in the White House is not too convincing as the following started on April 10, a month and a half after the Trumps visited India. Celebrating a presidential visit after that long particularly when the US leadership is caught in a terrible battle against a pandemic is not something that looks normal. On the other hand, the following started soon after India lifted the ban on the drug after what many suspected as a veiled threat from Trump. Do we still believe that the following on Twitter was done because of the trip and not the lifting of the HCQ ban?
Watch: White House clarifies the reason for un-following Modi on Twitter
For those on the Indian side who started feeling elated over Modi taking one more strong step towards cementing the friendship with the US, the unfollowing came as a blow. But the fault lies with them. Trump’s ‘quid pro quo’ is never a reliable policy impact-wise for US-India relations and “we follow you on Twitter because you gave us HCQ” diplomacy had a brittle ground always. The drug itself has not proved to be a cure for the disease yet. So there is no reason to believe that India’s exports were like a god-sent solution for America’s terrible pandemic.
Trump has been calling the HCQ a “game-changer” because he needs an exit route out of the mess. But his claims have found no corroboration from any expert. Hence, there was no real ground even for the US to feel grateful towards India. It was all about Trump’s short-lived on-screen performances and it had a temporary life span. India was baffled.
It’s more a problem with Trump, feel experts
US experts though are not surprised. Dr. Russell Lucas, associate professor of International Relations and Global Studies, Michigan State University, told DKODING.in, “Many people in the US have used the expression that “this is not normal” in regards to the Trump administration. Personal relations and feelings rather than standard diplomatic operating procedures have been more important for President Trump.”
Personal relations and feelings rather than standard diplomatic operating procedures have been more important for President Trump.Dr. Russell Lucas, associate professor of International Relations and Global Studies, Michigan State University
Marc Finaud, a former French diplomat and currently a Geneva-based security expert, also felt something similar. “In normal circumstances, this decision (of unfollowing on Twitter) by the White House would be considered as unfriendly and contrary to rules of courtesy. However, nevermind the impact on US-India relations, Trump is a disruptive president, and his ‘twitter diplomacy’ questions all previous rules and etiquette. This is where you can distinguish between a breach of protocol, attributed to the state, and a breach of etiquette, blamed on the individual,” he told DKODING.in.
Trump is a disruptive president, and his ‘twitter diplomacy’ questions all previous rules and etiquette.Marc Finaud, a former French diplomat and currently a Geneva-based security expert
While the theory that it is all about Trump’s unique way of handling things that suits the explanation more, the idea of a diplomatic snub is being constructed as another reason. The ‘snub’ came a day after the US Commission on International Religious Freedom called for the State Department in its annual report to designate India as a “country of particular concern” for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act”.
“India took a sharp downward turn in 2019. The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims,” the report said. All the recent trends in India favoring Hindu majoritarianism were highlighted in it. It may be recalled here that the Trumps’ visit to India in February saw a deadly riot engulfing parts of the Indian capital just when the high-profile guests were present in the city.
In India, Trump ignored hosts’ ‘internal matter’
However, the reasoning of the US snubbing India over that alarming report through unfollowing on Twitter sounds shallow. Unlike Barack Obama who reminded India of its responsibility of ensuring religious tolerance during his visit in January 2015, Trump distanced himself from the Delhi riots in February saying it was India’s internal matter.
If the incumbent’s words mean anything for America’s foreign policy stance, then there is a clear indication that the stance has undergone a considerable change. Trump’s America is less bothered about maintaining a high moral compass in matters related to other nations. For a man who hates globalism and Muslims, this is not surprising.
Hence, the theory that the US gave a strong signal to India on its records of religious freedom by unfollowing Modi and others on Twitter looks weak, unless of course there is a serious policy clash between Trump and his decision-facilitators in the White House. But that only makes the US look weak. If the US indeed wants to be stern with India over its domestic records, it can consider reverting to its policy of denying PM Modi a visa to enter America, as it had done after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. But that is unthinkable today.
The US needs India for strategic and economic reasons
It is unthinkable because both the US and India have a lot to gain from each other. Unlike in the Cold War era when the two nations had an ideological difference, Washington and New Delhi are among those rare nations today whose relations are meant to change a little under the given circumstances. True, there are some differences in matters of trade or over keeping ties with Iran, but those are too minor when compared to the bigger picture and are more Trump-centered.
Watch: Why India is so important for Trump and the US?
Overlooking the impact of Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, the reality in the US-India relations has undergone a sea of change post 9/11. Both the Republican and Democratic leaderships now treat India a close ally because of strategic and economic reasons. With the distance widening with its two Cold War allies in China and Pakistan and challenges multiplying in Asia, the US has to bank on India for diplomatic weight in the continent. Especially in connection with Afghanistan which may implode in post-US days, India’s significance for the US is bound to increase.
With distance widening with Cold War allies China and Pakistan, the US has to bank on India for diplomatic weight in Asia.
Economically, too, the US needs India. While the Asian powerhouse’s educated but cheap talent pool is always an enticing factor for America’s business leaders, the post-COVID-19 world could see the West focusing more on India as an economic power than China and that makes diplomatic skirmishes between Washington and New Delhi look less likely.
As long as the maverick Trump is in power, it is reasonable that other countries will see the US through a lens of suspicion but even he cannot change some basic foundations of international politics.