It was a lazy September Sunday, a day before the first day of fall. September 22 to be precise. The sun was shining brightly in the Texan sky. There were more than 50,000 people screaming and cheering loudly in this large National Football League (NFL) arena in Houston. Normally, you would have guessed that the home team must have scored a touchdown.
As it turned out, these loud cheers were not for Houston Texans, the local NFL team that call the NRG Stadium its home, but were for the Indian Pradhan Mantri (PM) Narendra Modi. The Texans, as it turned out, were playing the LA Rams about 450 kilometres away in Los Angeles, California.
Yes, PM Modi was in Houston for the mega rally, ‘Howdy! Modi’ organised by the Texas India Forum. It was a rally like no other seen before by American people, politicians, as well as folks in media. They were all wide-eyed by the sheer size of the crowd. It was the largest crowd for any PM in North America and the largest for a democratically elected leader in the US. Only the Pope had attracted a larger crowd in the US than this one. As US politicians – from the Mayor of the City of Houston to other local, state, and national level elected representatives including House Representatives, Senators, and Governors – lined up on the stage to greet PM Modi, they were all seemed awestruck to see such a large enthusiastic crowd.
The aftershocks of this event will be felt for a while and any true objective analysis of its long long-term consequences, good or bad, will have to undergo the test of time. However, in the short term, the event created a lot of buzz not only because of its size but also because President Donald Trump decided to join the party.
Roping in President Donald Trump was like a coup for the organisers of ‘Howdy, Modi!’. It is not clear whether President Trump’s presence had any positive bearing on the total number of participants but it didn’t hurt either. Stadium, as it was reported much in advance, was sold out long before the President Trump’s appearance at the rally was announced. People had come from far and away. Nirav Patel, an entrepreneur from Chicago metro area flew in just to be part of this unique experience. On being asked how he felt about the presence of President Trump there, he said, “It wasn’t about President Trump. I was happy to see the President of the United States at this Indian American event. This is quite remarkable.”
Beyond the number game, President Trump’s presence did provide credibility to PM Modi’s standing on his domestic and international policies. “When you can hold a rally for 50,000 people in America and have the American President show up, this is a powerful message,” said Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, in an interview with Archana Masih of Rediff.com. “PM Modi’s visit to US after winning a massive mandate in the recently concluded Indian elections is significant,” said political scientist Anjali Kanojia. “Highlighting India on the world stage via an event like this allows Indo-US ties to strengthen.”
Many analysts believe that it was a free campaign appearance for President Trump and other US politicians. They were all vying for Indian American votes as well as campaign donations from an increasingly rich constituency who is now not shy to flex its political muscles.
The following headlines from prominent media outlets give a flavor and the range of reactions to this event:
- Al Jazeera: ‘Howdy! Modi!’: Trump attends Indian PM’s rally in Houston
- CNBC: ‘Howdy, Modi!’ Thousands, plus Trump, rally in Texas for India’s leader
- The Washington Post: In coup for Modi, Trump will join Indian Prime Minister at US rally.
- The Politico: At a rally like no other, Trump woos Indian American voters ahead of 2020
- The New York Times: At Rally for India’s Modi, Trump Plays Second Fiddle but a Familiar Tune
Contrast these headlines with the one in one of the Alabama newspapers in 1966 – “The New India Leader Comes Begging,” The newly appointed PM, the daughter of the legendary Jawaharlal Nehru, the first PM of India, had come to US seeking a foreign aid package from President Lyndon B Johnson’s administration. The economic situation in India was in dire condition and it was at the brink of an economic and social disaster. “It took a patriotic visionary leader like Modi to alter the past diplomatic blunders of Indian heads of state like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. PM Modi took it upon himself to represent India and its people in their truest ideological beliefs and motivations on the world stage, to restore India’s pride, to do the right things,” said Somanjana Chatterjee, a JNU alumna and a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, editor, and activist who had come to attend the rally.
India’s relationship with the US has come a long way since the gloomy socialist cold war days under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Things started to brighten up during George W Bush’s presidency. By then India, constitutionally still a ‘Socialist’ country had already implemented far-reaching economic liberalization programs under the leadership of PM PV Narasimha Rao. That combined with the opening of its market of a billion plus strong Indians with growing aspirations and a growing middleclass made India far more lucrative for the Americans than it ever was in the past. George Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in one of her Washington Post op-ed pieces had described India as a “rising democratic power in a dynamic Asia”. This was in recognition of India’s growing clout in the world. The subsequent Obama administration carried forward that approach towards India. In his 2016 speech in the US Congress PM Modi acknowledged that both US and India have overcome “the hesitation of History”.
Beyond the pomp and show, PM Modi had his eyes set on several objectives. One of which was to put his case for the political change in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir forward on the world stage. With his forceful oratory and the entire world watching, he described the legitimacy of his government’s action. In the presence the President of the United States and dozens of US lawmakers PM Modi explained how his government’s action has helped reduce corruption, and extend constitutional and human rights protection to the disadvantaged, including women of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. He also explained in great detail how the Indian Parliament debated the issue that was telecast live on national media. He emphasiSed how the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament where PM Modi’s governing coalition does not have a working majority, passed the bills pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir with two thirds of majority.
In a gesture of immeasurable significance, PM Modi had also met some of the members of the Kashmiri Hindu community in Houston the day before the event. “It was a pretty emotional moment,” said Sunanda Vashisht, a political commentator and a Kashmir Hindu herself, “when PM said ‘apane jo kasht jhela woh bhi kuchh kam nahin’. It was an acknowledgement of our struggles and our forced exodus. My sense is that PM is pretty clear about changing the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir and working towards building a new Jammu and Kashmir with new India”. In fact one of the loudest applause PM Modi got was when he mentioned the ‘farewell’ to the provisions of Article 370.
Millions around the world watched the event live. The rally took away many of the negative talking points, for example the tit for tat tariffs, at least in the short run. Both President Trump and PM Modi walked hand-in-hand around the stadium waving at crowd at the end of the event sent a powerful signal to the world that despite their roller-coaster ride and some bumps and bruises along the way, the US-India relationship has not only matured over time, it is also on cruise control. And despite the blow hot and blow cold nature that has come to describe the US-India relationship during Trump presidency, the Indo-US have matured to such a level where it is not a hostage to an individual’s personality or ideology. The ‘Howdy! Modi’ event in Houston further helps cement the strategic Indo-US relationship for the long term. n