US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared a stage and showered each other with praise yesterday at a “Howdy, Modi!” rally attended by upward of 50,000 people, a rare mass showing for a foreign leader on American soil.
Trump, calling the gathering a “profoundly historic event,” was greeted with a standing ovation by the Indian-American crowd and his speech was interrupted several times by roars of approval.
The US leader hailed the India-US relationship and the Indian-American community as he reached out to an ethnic group that voted overwhelmingly against him in 2016.
“You uphold our values, you uplift our communities and you are truly proud to be American and we are truly proud to have you as Americans,” Trump the crowd.
Modi began his talk inside the NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans football team, with a loud, “Howdy my friends!”
In his remarks delivered in Hindi, Modi said that he was “impatient to take the country to new heights” and that “today the buzz word in India is development.”
The event has given Modi, facing international criticism over a recent crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir, a chance to energise his relationship with Indian-Americans who are active political supporters.
Jubilant supporters dressed in everything from ornate saris to simple dhotis and even a few cowboy hats waved American and Indian flags, chanted “Modi! Modi!” and munched on concession stand snacks that included samosas and naan breads - along with nachos.
“Today we celebrate our community and its importance in Houston and all America,” said Ketan Inamdar, who works in the administration of Houston’s Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner, and painted an American flag on his right cheek and an Indian one on the left.
“Trump is very welcome here today. This event is to build harmony and love,” he said, standing just in front of the dais.
“Race, religion and political parties don’t matter today.”
Houston is a rare Democratic stronghold in Republican-dominated Texas and serves as the economic anchor of a state that will be critical to Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
Polls show tepid support by Indian-American voters, some 75% of whom voted for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
But organisers of the “Howdy, Modi!” event that was kicked off with a 90-minute cultural programme featuring 400 costumed dancers, were delighted to welcome Trump.
“His presence is an indication of his support and endorsement of the strengthening of India’s relations with America,” said Preeti Dawra, a spokeswoman for the Texas India Forum that organised the event.
“This event is about strengthening those ties.”
It was the first time Modi addressed a large crowd in the United States, which is home to about 4mn Indian-Americans including about 300,000 in Houston and nearby Dallas, according to a Pew Research Centre analysis of US Census data.
Some 19,000 people turned out for a similar event in New York in 2014, and Indian-American volunteers living in US suburbs helped run a telephone blitz of voters in India in the run-up to Modi’s May re-election campaign.
Modi’s visit to Houston comes ahead of this week’s UN General Assembly in New York and amid a particularly tense time on the subcontinent.
The Indian leader further strained long-simmering relations with Pakistan last month by revoking the partial autonomy enjoyed by Kashmir.
Modi’s move has been met by international criticism.
The US-India relationship on trade and tariffs is rocky, though Trump and Modi appear to have strong personal ties.
Devesh Kapur, director of Asia Programmes at Johns Hopkins University, who has written a book on Indian-Americans, said that while the rally has symbolic value for both leaders, “it’s unlikely by itself to impact thorny trade issues...but it can’t hurt.”
Kapur also forecast little improvement regarding Trump’s standing with Indian-Americans.
“The Trump administration’s hardline policies on immigration have hardly endeared (him) to the community,” Kapur said.
“Appearing with PM Modi might mildly help but certainly not reverse the community’s overall pro-Democrat leanings.”
Modi heaps praise on friend Trump
Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday made a tacit backing for Donald Trump who is seeking re-election, and said the US president’s presence on the stage with him signalled the close partnership between the two nations.
“This morning we have a very special person with us, he needs no introduction. His name is familiar to every person on the planet. His name comes up in almost every conversation on global politics, his every word is followed by tens of millions,” said Modi, with President Trump listening and smiling.
“He was a household name and very popular even before he went to occupy the highest office in this great country. From CEO, to commander-in-chief, from board rooms to the Oval Office, from studios to the global stage, from politics to the economy and security, he has left a deep and lasting impact everywhere. Today he is here with us, and it is my honour and privilege to welcome him here in this magnificent stadium and magnificent gathering,” Modi said.
“And I can say I had a chance to meet him often and every time I found the friendliness, warmth and energy of the President of the USA, Donald Trump. This is extraordinary, this is unprecedented... Friends, as I told you we have met a few times and every time he has been the same warm, friendly accessible, energetic and full of wit,” the prime minister said.
“I admire him, for something more, his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in the American future, and a strong resolve to make America great again.
“And he has already made the American economy strong again. He has achieved much for the US and for the world. Friends, we in India have connected well with America,” Modi said.
He said the US president’s presence on the stage was a testimony to the strong friendship between their two countries.
“This morning in Houston, you can hear the heartbeat of this great partnership in the celebration of the two largest democracies. You can feel the strength and depth of the human bonds, between our two great nations.
“People are at the heart of the relations, from Houston to Hyderabad, from Boston to Bengaluru, from Chicago to Shimla, from Los Angele to Ludhiana, from New Jersey to New Delhi, hundreds of millions are glued to their TV, even though it is rather late on a Sunday night in India.
“Millions around the world in different time zones are with us today, they are witnessing history in the making.
“Mr President, you had introduced me to your family in 2017, and today I have the honour to introduce you to my family,” Modi said to loud cheers.
“Over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe, ladies and gentlemen I present to you my friend, a friend of India, a great American President Mr Donald Trump.”
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