There is something curious about the “Legion of Merit” award conferred on Prime Minister Narendra Modi by President Donald Trump. The Legion of Merit is primarily a military honour bestowed by an American President. The Chief Commander category of this award has been in the past given mainly to Army Chiefs, Generals and Commander-in-Chiefs of the armed forces of other countries. Only a handful have been given to Heads of State, or, government leaders and those too have been close military allies of the United States.
The Legion of Merit has not been conferred on anyone outside the United States for the past 29 years. In fact, the highest civilian honour in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom instituted in 1963 has been the preferred award given by successive Presidents to foreign statesmen and outstanding persons. Incidentally, this award has gone to only one Indian citizen i.e. Mother Teresa in 1985.
But Trump has given Modi what is essentially a military honour. The citation for the award that he “elevated the strategic partnership between the United States and India to address global challenges” is an acknowledgement of his newly-acquired role as a military ally of the United States.
According to the citation, Modi had rendered meritorious service as Prime Minister of India, which in American eyes included the decisive steps he took in converting India into a military ally of the United States by signing the Logistics Supply Agreement (LEMOA) and the two other foundational agreements thereafter.
Trump gave the honour simultaneously to Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister, and Shinzo Abe, who till recently was Japan’s Prime Minister. All three were instrumental in lining up their countries to join the US-led quadrilateral alliance (QUAD), which the Pentagon foresaw as a military alliance.
If the Legion medal is a recognition of the three leaders, who forged the military partnership with Trump, it is also more than that. All three are rightwing leaders who have expressed their close political affinity with Trump.
If Modi endorsed Trump at the Houston rally in September 2019, Morrison had gone to Wapakoneta in Ohio to attend a Trump rally the same month. If Modi had reiterated “Abki Baar Trump Sarkar” at Houston, Morrison was more circumspect but declared that “We do share a lot of same views” when asked about Trump’s re-election. As for Shinzo Abe, he had the closest personal relations with Trump and was his golfing buddy.
That he has not given the medal to his ideological soulmates like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil shows that this was essentially a Pentagon-based decision to give out awards for a new and significant military alliance.
In his last days in the White House, Trump has issued a flurry of pardons for those associates who have been convicted in criminal cases like his former Advisor, Michael Flynn. He has been appointing many of his acolytes to plum positions and he has not forgotten his political buddies abroad.
Modi has said that he is “deeply honoured” by the conferment of the award by President Trump and pledged on behalf of the 1.3 billion people of India to continue working with the US government to strengthen India-US ties. However, Modi does not seem to have got the proper information about the background of the American award. The only two Indians who received this award before were Field Marshal Cariappa and Gen. S. M. Srinagesh in 1950 and 1955 respectively. Both were Army Chiefs and had fought in the Second World War as officers of the British Army. In those days, the Legion medal was conferred on various Chiefs of armed forces around the world. One of the recipients was the Nepal Army Chief.
For three decades, this award was not given to anyone. Now Trump has suddenly revived the conferment of the award to foreign leaders. The late Emir of Kuwait was given the award in September this year. For Trump, doling out this award in the fag-end of his term is a way of thanking his allies in the fight against China. The Pentagon has a more mercenary motive of cementing the military alliance.
Notwithstanding, Modi’s delight at the honour, the award is, unfortunately, an acknowledgement of the fact that India has become a subordinate military ally of the United States.