Two of the world’s most powerful orator politicians bonded together on September 22 to woo an audience of tens of thousands of Indian Americans for their support and votes. Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and the US president, Donald Trump, were greeted by an ecstatically cheering crowd at a rally in a massive Houston football stadium
Billed as “Howdy Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures,” and with 50,000 people registered to attend, this was a remarkable performance by the two leaders. After Trump had spoken for 25 minutes and Modi for 50, the Indian prime minister led the American president hand in hand around the stadium acknowledging the cheers.
They will meet more formally in the next few days for talks that will try to solve a serious trade dispute between their two countries. In June, the US cancelled India’s beneficial status under a trade preferences scheme. And on September 21, among the smiles and hugs, Trump warned that he was determined Indian people would have access to “products stamped with the beautiful phrase Made in the USA.”
Modi is used to such Indian diaspora events – he has appeared at 10 around the world since he was elected in 2014, most memorably at the first in New York’s Madison Square Garden a few months after he became prime minister. A year later he was in London’s Wembley Stadium where David Cameron, then the prime minister, introduced him to a 60,000 audience.
But yesterday was the first time an American president had shared an event with another country’s leader. It was also the largest audience in the US for a foreign leader, beaten only by Pope Francis in 2015.
The program did not, however, begin quite according to plan. After a 90-minute warm-up session of music and dance by 400 artists that was greeted with frenzied applause, Modi walked dramatically on stage, met leading politicians and made his opening remarks. But Trump was nowhere to be seen – he’d decided to spend 30 unscheduled minutes with local coast guards and holding a press conference.
All was well when he eventually arrived and made his speech. It was, he said, a “profoundly historic event.” Modi was “a great man and a great leader.” He spelled out how he has improved job opportunities for Indian Americans and got loud applause and a standing ovation, with Modi and his officials taking part, when he pledged to rid the country of “radical Islamic terrorism.” There was also sustained applause for him to “protect America’s borders.”
Times of India graphic
Modi spelled out his government’s economic and other policies. He summed them up (probably fairly) when he said, “Today, India is challenging those who believe nothing can change.”
For Trump, it was a way to connect with some of America’s four million people of Indian origin ahead of next year’s presidential election.
He wowed them with his closeness to Modi and by displaying a connection with India that many regard as their home country. According to a 2018 survey, Indian Americans were more disapproving of Trump’s presidency than the average Asian Americans. On several key policy issues, they have identified with Democratic Party policies.
For Modi, it was chance to woo people who may have a vote back in India, and who have money to donate to the BJP. They can also influence families back home, saying how impressed they were when they heard Modi speak. Diasporas are usually more intensely patriotic than people in the home country, and this makes many of them natural BJP supporters, especially now that Modi is driving a nationalist agenda.
A pre-event poster
Modi also gained internationally from appearing alongside Trump. He said that Trump had introduced him to his family “and today I have the honor to introduce you to my family — over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe.”
Such closeness is especially significant at a time when there has been some international criticism of Kashmir being deprived of its special status, along with an extended massive security clampdown on the freedom of movement and communications.
Modi’s main problem at home is that economic growth rate has fallen to 5 percent, but he attempted to deal with that last week by cutting corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent, the lowest since India became independent 72 years ago. That enabled him to make a positive economic pitch at the rally.
Both leaders will have gained from yesterday’s performance, which was timed to be watched by evening television viewers in India. It now remains to be seen how long Trump can sustain the mood and resist the characteristic tendency to send controversial tweets.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.