While praising their own achievements, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the friendship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies at the HowdyModi! event at the NRG stadium Sept. 22, attended by over 50,000 people from across the nation.
For Modi, it was a political victory when the leader of the most powerful nation seemingly endorsed his position on Pakistan as a key problem in the fight against global terrorism, as well as the controversial step downgrading Article 370 relating to Kashmir’s special status; For Trump it was an opportunity to join Modi in showering high praise on the Indian-American community and its accomplishments, cashing in on an estimated 50,000-strong captive audience in an election year.
In his speech, Modi lashed out at Pakistan without naming it, for fomenting terrorism in South Asia, and justified his steps to end Kashmir’s special status saying it brought Kashmiris on par with the rest of Indians.
President Trump said that just as he had promised before his election, “You have never had a better friend than Donald Trump,” in the White House. Trump paid lavish compliments to Indian-Americans. “I’ve also come to express my profound gratitude to the nearly 4 million amazing Indian Americans all across our country. You enrich our culture, you uphold our values, you uplift our communities, and you are truly proud to be American. And we are proud to have you as Americans,” the President said in language typical of a campaign rally, adding, “We thank you. We love you. And I want you to know my administration is fighting for you each and every day.”
This rally has been called a win-win for both the leaders. For President Trump, it was a chance to court Indian-Americans for the 2020 presidential election race where Texas could emerge as a battleground state. For Mr Modi, a PR triumph and picture with the president of the United States may help him shrug off the criticism over his recent strong-arm polices at home.
Houston’s NRG Stadium, where the event was hosted, was the first stop for Mr Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in this year’s Indian elections.
Greeted by a standing ovation, Mr Trump used his speech to heap praise on Mr Modi, who he said was doing a “truly exceptional job for India” and its people.
Mr Trump also paid tribute to the Indian-American community, telling them “we are truly proud to have you as Americans”.
The US has a population of about 4 million Indians who are seen as an increasingly important vote bank in the country.
Apart from Mr Trump, organisers also invited Democrats to the event – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was among those who spoke.
The 2010 US census shows that Texas is home to the fourth-largest Indian-American population in the country after California, New York and New Jersey. Analysis of voting patterns shows the community tends overwhelmingly to support the Democrat party.
The rally gave Trump an opportunity to appeal to Indian-American voters in Harris County, which has been at the heart of Texas’ gradual shift from reliably Republican to competitive battleground. Modi, who is set to attend the United Nations General Assembly this week, could help give Trump a bump in his battle for reelection.
On stage, Modi introduced Trump as India’s “true friend” in the White House, and he invoked Trump in his signature campaign slogan, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar,” which translates to “This time, Modi government.” On stage, Modi replaced his name with Trump’s.
He commended the Trump administration for celebrating Diwali at the White House, and he invited Trump and his family to come to India.
Modi said he is “certain that some positive developments” will come out of upcoming talks at the UN. “President Trump calls me the top negotiator but he himself is great at the ‘Art of the deal’ and I am learning a lot from him,” he said.
The event was the first of two events on Sunday with foreign leaders in battleground states. After the rally, Trump flew to Wapakoneta, Ohio, to tour an Australian-owned cardboard manufacturing plant alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who Trump feted with a state dinner on Friday.
The events were an opportunity for both Modi and Morrison to show the US President they can deliver in ways that are especially appealing to Trump.
The exhibition of bonhomie with lots of hand-holding and hugs, culminated in a victory lap with both leaders joining hands and intermittently holding their arms aloft, around the track of the stadium to standing ovation. Modi appeared in control of the agenda at the massive gathering, as according to some news reports, the walk around the stadium was unscripted and spontaneous.
For his part, Modi showered exuberant praise on President Trump while introducing him as the first speaker, saying the American President’s “every word is followed by tens of millions,” and that his name “is familiar to every person on the planet,” and even praised Trump for having “left a lasting impact everywhere.”
The Indian leader extended an invitation to Trump to visit India with his family, and Trump in his speech joked that he may suddenly land up to watch the first ever NBA match to be played in Mumbai next month.
Both India and the U.S. stand against “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said. “We’re especially grateful to be joined by over 50,000 incredible members of our nation’s thriving, prospering, flourishing, and hardworking Indian American community. Thank you,” said President Trump. He had more to say in a year when election campaigns are the order of the day. “Prime Minister Modi and I have come to Houston to celebrate everything that unites America and India: our shared dreams and bright futures,” Trump said.
Indian-Americans are the highest educated, highest earning minority in the country, and their rising importance in U.S. politics was more than clear when Trump sat through Modi’s nearly forty-minute speech after delivering his own.
Modi got his share of praise when Trump said he had done “a truly exceptional job for India and for all of the Indian people. Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, the world is witnessing a strong, sovereign, and thriving Republic of India. (Applause.) In a single decade, with the help of Prime Minister Modi’s pro-growth reforms, India has lifted nearly 300 million people out of poverty, and that is an incredible number. Incredible. That’s incredible. In the next decade, 140 million Indian household will rise to the middle class,” Trump said.
Close to 20 U.S. lawmakers representing both parties, jump-started the event by lining up on stage with brief speeches by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and senior Texas Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, was the only Indian-American lawmaker from among the four elected representatives currently in the House of Representatives, and an Indian-American Senator. Among other notable officials who attended were Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Cornyn said Texas was unmatched among the U.S. states, in engaging with India, and praised the large Indian-American community in Houston; Hoyer introduced Modi saying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also welcomed him, and in being present, delinked domestic politics from international diplomacy, while keeping Kashmir out of the equation. Every speaker made mention of “common” values of democracy, the people-to-people ties, and the contributions of Indian-Americans to this country.
“Today we are seeing new history being made,” said Modi who spoke in Hindi. “And a new chemistry.” The presence of President Trump, the bipartisan lawmakers is a sign of the respect they hold for 1.3 billion Indians, he said. “Unity in diversity is our specialty. India’s diversity is proof of our democracy. It is our strength and our wish,” the Prime Minister said. “Wherever we go we take our diversity with us,” he added. “In this stadium, the more than 50,000 people represent our ancient history,” he said. “There are many among you who participated in the 2019 election,” which he noted saw 610 million come to the polling booth, two times the size of the American population.
A 21st Century India, Modi said, is impatient to become a “new India” and working to “challenge ourselves, we are changing ourselves.” He then trotted out figures to prove the expansion of electricity, cooking gas, rural road connectivity, bank accounts, to achieve “ease of living.” Modi also promised American investors India presented a “great opportunity” for them.
Outside the NRG Stadium, scores of protesters held placards and shouted slogans criticizing Modi, as did supporters of the Prime Minister. Two opposing opinions were also apparent in social media, and in statements released.
On the other side, were commentators like Houstonians Swati Narayan, director of the non-profit Culture of Health Advancing Together which works with immigrant and refugee families, and Manpreet K. Singh, director and trustee with the Texas chapter of the Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. They wrote an opinion on CNN, entitled, “Why we won’t be cheering Modi and Trump in Houston,” which condemned actions in Kashmir, saying, .. we want the people of Kashmir to have a voice in their own state, and we want democracy restored. And most of all, we want India to live up to the pluralist and secular society it claims to be.”