How ‘The Modi’ Rally Is Everything the Prime Minister Ever Wanted 

In the end, the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally was a display of Indian-American political muscle, writes Seema Sirohi.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of PM Modi and President Trump, hand-in-hand at the Houston rally on 22 Sept 2019.
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The joint appearance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump in front of thousands of cheering supporters, is the strongest assertion thus far, that India-US ties are in good health and set to grow healthier.

By standing together, Trump signaled the approval of recent Indian decisions regarding Kashmir, especially as Modi defended the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

The fight against terrorism was the thread that sewed the whole thing up in Houston.

Trump, referring to himself in third person, told the audience: “You have never had a better friend as President than President Donald Trump… and the prime minister knows that.” Then Trump — deliberately and consciously — used the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” saying he would do everything to defend India against it; the crowd cheered. It was a message that was meant to hit the target, and it did.

Modi, for his part, made a not-so-veiled reference to Pakistan when he said, “Be it 9/11 or 26/11 in Mumbai, where can the conspirators be found? The time has come for a decisive battle to be fought against terrorism and those backing it.”

‘Howdy, Modi!’: An Appeal to 4.4 Million Indian-Americans

‘Howdy, Modi!’ was also a signal to both China and Pakistan. Trump and Modi, walking hand-in-hand, heaping praise on each other and taking a lap of the NRG stadium, tells its own story — the tea leaves readers will have received the message.

Houston was the kind of spectacle that Modi’s political managers have mastered — grand, huge gatherings of cheerful supporters, eager to embrace the prime minister and his message — whether on Kashmir, or his many efforts to ‘revitalise’ the economy.

But this time Modi went several steps further, making Trump’s politics his own, in trying to sway the Indian-American vote in the president’s favour for 2020. Whether Indian Americans — who support the Democratic Party by a significant margin — will shift to the Republicans, remains to be seen. But one increasingly hears noises in the community that some change is happening.

Trump made a point of appealing to a 4.4 million-strong Indian-American community as a model one that contributes mightily to the US economy.

Indian companies employ thousands of Americans, and JSW Steel is investing USD 500 million in a defunct steel plant in Ohio, he said. He also made it a point to highlight the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigration, and the US needs to crackdown on the latter. Most Indian-Americans came to the US legally and support the stringent measures the Trump Administration has taken to stem the flow of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

From ‘Ab ki Baar Modi Sarkar’ to ‘Ab ki Baar Trump Sarkar’

And Modi practically endorsed Trump at the Houston rally, telling nearly 50,000 Indian-Americans that he admires the US president’s “passion for America” and his resolve to make “America great again.” Indian and American politics haven’t mingled like this before.

Modi’s election slogan of ‘Ab ki Baar Modi Sarkar’, repeated by Trump in 2016 in an ad, resurfaced as ‘Ab ki Baar Trump Sarkar’. If that indeed happens in 2020, Modi would have been proven right. But if it doesn’t, and a Democrat takes the White House, the open embrace might prove costly.

Steny Hoyer’s ‘Nehruvian’ Appeal

The highest-ranking Democrat present at the rally, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, made it a point to remind Modi of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, and their vision of India as a secular democracy, “where respect for pluralism and human rights” safeguard every individual.

Steny Hoyer quoted from Nehru’s independence speech, no less.

The message was pointed, and it was a price for Hoyer’s appearance. Several Democrats have gone on social media against the clampdown in Kashmir, expressing concern about the human rights situation. And yes, protesters outside the NRG stadium came out in good numbers to spoil the show, but by and large their message got lost, despite Pakistan’s best efforts. But protests will continue as Modi arrives in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Display of Indian-American Political Muscle

There is no question that the Modi government’s moves in Kashmir have created some difficulties for the Democrats. Some have criticised the aggressive tactics of the Hindu American Foundation, a group that often blurs the line between ‘support’ and ‘lobbying’. One recent example being Ro Khanna, an Indian-American Congressman from California, coming under pressure from as many as 230 Indian-American groups, to quit the Pakistan Caucus.

But in the end, the Houston rally was a display of Indian-American political muscle.

While they will vote according to their interests, some amount of emotion will also go into their decision in 2020. If Trump and Modi can show some concrete progress in the coming year — be it in expanded cooperation on counter-terrorism or defence — Indian-Americans will take note.

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, by targeting India explicitly in an op-ed the day of the rally, did not endear himself to Indian-Americans, at least not the older generation.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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