The Howdy Modi megashow in Houston, Texas

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

For those who know better, it was the more positive impact of India’s enhanced global standing, largely the result of what is perceived as Modi’s personal chemistry and diplomacy with world leaders, that prevailed

By all accounts the meeting held on Sunday last at the NRG stadium in Houston, Texas where the US Indian diaspora hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, was a hugely successful event, speaking as they did to a crowd of nearly 50,000 coming from all over the USA, with 650 groups across the country having come together to plan and organize the event.

One couldn’t help draw a parallel with the similar surges of enthusiasm that had been visible when Modi addressed diaspora crowds after his 2014 sweeping victory at the polls that saw him being installed as Prime Minister: in 2014, 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York, followed by a similar number at the AllPhones Arena in the Olympic Park in Sydney, Australia; and one year later with British Prime Minister David Cameron in front of about 60,000 members of the Indian diaspora at Wembley Stadium in London. It may be pointed out that, according to new estimates released by the United Nations (The International Migrant Stock 2019, a dataset released by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, DESA), the Indian diaspora is 17.5 million strong.

As luck would have it, the storm that had flooded parts of Texas (including Houston) started to abate by the preceding Thursday, to allow the meeting to proceed without a hitch on Sunday 22 September! Further, the anti-Modi protest that was to be held outside the stadium wasn’t even noticed – except for the loads of litter left much further away from the venue, emblematic perhaps of the twisted minds and intentions of those who were behind it. As Latafat Hussain, President of the Indian Muslim Association of Houston said in an interview before the meeting, let them protest, it will come to nothing.

The reactions that have followed this megashow, which has been covered by all the Indian news channels (I was therefore able to view it live), have been generally positive, but as was to be expected it was initially downplayed by the usual western media titles known to be hostile to Modi and India. For that matter, in India also, the criticisms were mixed, and without surprise the opposition, Congress in particular, made some acerbic comments. But for those who know better, it was the more positive impact of India’s enhanced global standing, largely the result of what is perceived as Modi’s personal chemistry and diplomacy with world leaders, that prevailed.

Prime Minister Modi had arrived in Houston the previous evening, and typical of him he wasted no time in beginning the series of 48 meetings that were in store for him during the coming week-long visit. He met the representatives of some communities from different parts of India who had settled in the USA, such as the Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohras, the Kashmiri Pandits, and Sikhs. Given that Texas is practically the energy capital of the world, that evening he met with 52 CEOs representing the energy and other sectors.

Going forward, he was scheduled to have bilateral talks with President Trump, speak at the UN General Assembly, attend a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, and appear at the UN’s Climate Action Summit. He would also be collecting an award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his government’s Swachch Bharat or ‘Clean India’ initiative.

Coming to the Howdy Modi! event proper, the crowds had started gathering from about five o’clock in the morning. A cultural show with a galaxy of artists kept the audience entertained pending the arrival of the two leaders. Modi was welcomed on stage by the mayor of Houston, and the House Leader of the Congress, a Democrat (from among the 20 representatives present, both Republicans and Democrats) then delivered an address after Modi had greeted the representatives individually.

Modi welcomed Trump warmly and praised his leadership; Trump reciprocated in his speech, which was followed by that of Modi in Hindi. After their speeches, the two leaders held hands and walked around the stadium to the thunderous applause of the cheering crowd.

President Trump spoke of shared values among the world’s two largest democracies, saying that ‘Indian-Americans are helping revolutionize technology to change the world and improving lives,’ and ‘that both the countries will work together to create cutting-edge technology to benefit millions’.

For his part, PM Narendra Modi said that President Trump’s presence on the stage with him was ‘a testimony of the close and strong partnership the two nations share’. Terrorism, investment, secure borders and the defence partnership between the two countries were highlighted, with President Trump specifically making a reference to the fact that both nations are committed to ‘protecting innocent civilians from radical Islamic terrorism.’

PM Modi mentioned his government’s decision to scrap the provisions under Article 370 that gave a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), saying that India had bid ‘goodbye’ to Article 370 that went against people-centric development in J&K. Under this article, which had been implemented from the time of independence, the people of J&K had been deprived of the rights that had been granted to the rest of the country. For 70 years, pointed out PM Modi, it had ‘kept people away from the benefits of development and equality. The Constitution that is for the rest of India is now also for J&K and Ladakh. All the discrimination that women, children and Dalits faced has ended.’

This event was an eminently political affair, as was bound to be, for President Trump could not miss this opportunity of riding on the wave of PM Modi’s evident popularity in the diaspora, hoping to gain mileage among an electorate which has traditionally voted democrat. But the tide is changing, as it is doing in Britain too, where the diaspora which has traditionally voted Labour is getting increasingly disenchanted with that party, especially because of its stand on the issue of abrogation of Article 370.

The optics notwithstanding, however, both leaders are aware of the hard realities which underlie the relationship between their two countries. They well know each other’s stated positions on a number of policy matters, and it will be left to their respective teams to work out the nitty-gritty and smooth out the edges where this can be done. The latter will no doubt focus on the convergence of their larger interests, and negotiate to reduce any differences as a ‘work in progress’ with resolution coming incrementally over time.

It is the same with all country partnerships. The title of an article in The Conversation of 24 September by Mark Beeson of the University of Western Australia captures this dimension: ‘Yes, the US-Australia alliance is important, but (Australian PM) Scott Morrison needs to take a careful approach with Donald Trump’, with a header to the effect that ‘just because Australia has a strong relationship with the US doesn’t mean we should take a similarly aggressive stance with China and Iran’.

And so it no doubt is between India and the US – but that does not prevent them from addressing fundamental concerns that impact not only their two countries but humanity at large. With Narendra Modi at the helm in India, there is indeed hope for ‘Shared Values, Bright Futures’ to become a reality not only for his country and the US, but for all countries whose leaders sincerely wish that their peoples be led along the path of development, peace and prosperity

* Published in print edition on 27 September 2019

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