After a series of successful Indian diaspora outreach events in the past five years, it came as little surprise that tickets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Howdy Modi rally at the massive NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, were sold out months in advance.
The surprise, or rather shock, followed the announcement that United States President Donald Trump was to join Modi’s first mega foreign rally after his re-election, and that too in the face of international criticism over his government’s move of abrogating Article 370 which stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
If there were any doubts about the alignments of the world’s two largest democracies and their relationship going forward, they were laid to rest on September 23 at the Howdy Modi extravaganza as more than 50,000 Indian Americans and a line-up of Senators and Congressmen witnessed the Modi-Trump bonhomie.
As one of the largest ever receptions of a foreign leader in the US, Modi’s rally has made history and marked a definitive and fundamental shift in India-US ties. The Houston event was Modi’s third major address to the Indian-American community after he became the prime minister in 2014 and the first after his re-election in May.
The previous two were at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 2014 and the Silicon Valley in 2016. Attended by over 20,000 people, the previous events paled in comparison to the scale of the Houston gathering.
The decision to hold the rally in Houston was a smart choice as it is home to one of the largest concentration of over 5,00,000 Indian-Americans in the United States and also the energy capital of the world.
India also happens to be Houston's fourth-largest trading partner, just behind Brazil, China and Mexico. From 2009 to 2018, trade between Houston and India averaged USD 4.8 billion annually and was valued at USD 7.2 billion in 2018.
United States and India are natural allies as the world’s largest democracies but the relationship had been increasingly strained because of trade issues under Trump. There are now strong indications that the two countries have made some headway towards resolving their considerable differences seen on the trade front over the past eighteen months.
Modi’s visit is a perfect opportunity to bring down the trade deficit with the US. Trump has repeatedly complained of high tariffs imposed by India on US products, including a 50 per cent tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
In June, he ended the favourable treatment that India enjoyed under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which allows many products from developing countries like India to enter the US duty-free.
In 2018-19, India's exports to the US stood at USD 52.4 billion, while imports were USD 35.5 billion. The trade deficit has dropped from USD 21.3 billion in 2017-18 to USD 16.9 billion in 2018-19.
During Modi’s address, he highlighted the MoU between India's Petronet LNG and US liquefied natural gas (LNG) developer Tellurian Inc inked some days ago as one of the largest foreign investments in the US for shipping shale gas abroad.
According to the Pew Research Centre, the nearly four million people of Indian descent are the highest earning ethnic group in the US, with a median income of USD 100,000, almost double that of the national median, and with 72 per cent having at least a bachelor's degree.
Even though the Indian-American community largely supports Democrats in elections, Trump’s presence at the Howdy Modi rally says as much about the influence of Indian-Americans as it does about India’s growing clout in the world.
This is the first time that a presidential candidate has come to a rally of Indians Americans who only make up about 1 per cent of the US population but are also among the wealthiest communities in the US.
Trump flew in specially for the Howdy Modi event and sat through Modi’s entire speech even though he was not the main speaker, with The New York Times saying he was playing a “second fiddle” and The Washington Post calling it “an unusual role of warm-up act” as Modi took centre stage.
This is the biggest crowd Trump has addressed during his campaign and many believe the optics and crowd size were his main motivations to attend Modi’s rally. However, America’s bipartisan support to India could be seen by the presence of a large number of Democrats among the about 60 elected officials, including Governors, Senators and Representatives, who were on the stage with Trump.
Trump may have been the special guest at the event, but Modi was the man of the moment. He used the event to his advantage and worked the 50,000-strong crowd as if they were on puppet strings.
In his first speech at the event while welcoming President Trump on the stage, Modi highlighted the close friendship between the two leaders and the countries. He was effusive in his praise for “my friend, a friend of India, a great American President Mr Donald Trump” and of how his presence at ‘Howdy Modi’ was “extraordinary and unprecedented”.
Trump replied in kind, describing Modi as “America's greatest, most devoted, and loyal friend”, and backed his administration, saying the Prime Minister “is doing a truly excellent job in India and for all of the Indian people”.
Taking the stage after Trump, this time to speak in Hindi for which the US dignitaries had their earphones on for the simultaneous translation, Modi was careful to enunciate clearly the many developmental moves of his government.
He elaborated on "fast-paced vikas" or development, and how his government had bid "farewell" to many factors detrimental to growth and development, like corruption, fake companies etc.
He said his government was building a transparent ecosystem so that the benefits of development reach every Indian.
“And if any Indian is kept away from development it is not agreeable,” he said, before going to his government's move on Kashmir.
“For 70 years a big challenge that India faced has been given farewell to ... you know what I am referring to,” Modi said, to loud cheers.
“Article 370 was another big challenge that was given farewell to. It kept people away from the benefits of development, and from equality, and it was being used by separatists and terrorists. The Constitution that is for the rest of India is now also for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. All the discrimination that women, children and Dalits were facing, has been ended,” he stated amid chants of “Modi, Modi”.
Modi said the legislation was passed with a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament, including the Upper House where his government did not have majority, and the proceedings were also telecast.
He then asked the audience to give a standing ovation to the Indian Parliament for its move, and the 50,000 crowd stood up as one, applauding, as Trump and the American Congressmen watched.
This was a masterclass in strategic thinking. With this one gesture Modi could show President Trump along with a large gathering of elected US officials from both the Democrats and Republicans, the kind of wide approval that the abrogation of Article 370 enjoys among ordinary Indians.
Modi spoke at length about his government’s initiatives for the country, but drew maximum cheers when he spoke about Article 370. The crowd’s reaction and support somewhat dulled the impact of the negative international coverage of the government’s move in Kashmir.
He then targeted Islamabad over terrorism and its obsessive focus on Kashmir, without even naming Pakistan. There could be no stronger message against Pakistan and its harbouring of terror, to the watching US audience, and also of the Modi government's resolve to develop Kashmir like the rest of India.
After making thinly veiled comments against Pakistan, Modi asked the audience to give a standing ovation to Trump for his “strong determination” to fight terrorism and called for a definite fight against terrorism.
The symbolism of Modi and Trump walking hand-in-hand around the stadium at the end of the rally in a kind of victory lap was not lost on anybody.
The strong friendship between India and US and the personal chemistry between Trump and Modi was for all to see. What many did not see were separatist Sikhs and Pakistanis holding a big demonstration against Modi over Kashmir outside the stadium. In the energy and excitement of the crowd inside, they were all but forgotten.
In getting Trump to the rally, Modi achieved something of a diplomatic coup, something both leaders could gain from while solidifying US-India ties. As long as India sustains its economic growth and remains a vibrant democracy, American friendship is more than guaranteed. Modi’s will has triumphed in Texas, it is now time to shift the focus back to the economy.