Tens of thousands of Indian Americans have packed into a stadium in Houston for a rally featuring India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump, in a rare mass show of support for a foreign leader on US soil.
The event gives Modi, a nationalist facing international criticism over a crackdown in disputed Kashmir, a chance to energise his relationship with Indian Americans who are active political supporters.
Jubilant supporters dressed in everything from saris to cowboy hats waved US and Indian flags, chanted “Modi! Modi!” and ate concession stand snacks that included samosas, naan breads and 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.
“Trump is very welcome here today. This event is to build harmony and love,” he said, standing just in front of the dais where Trump and Modi would speak. “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 Hillary Clinton. But organisers of the “Howdy, Modi” event, which kicked off with a 90-minute cultural programme featuring 400 costumed dancers, say Trump can expect a receptive audience.
“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, which organised the event. “This event is about strengthening those ties.”
It will not be the first time Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, has addressed a large crowd in the US, which is home to about 4 million Indian Americans including about 300,000 in Houston and nearby Dallas, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of US census data.
About 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 his 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 Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both nuclear-armed countries claim.
Modi’s move has been criticised internationally. Pakistan has condemned the crackdown and its prime minister, Imran Khan, warned it would drive more of the world’s Muslims to extremism. Members of India’s religious-minority Sikh and Muslim groups are planning gatherings near the stadium to protest Modi’s Kashmir policy.
The US-India relationship on trade and tariffs is rocky, though Trump and Modi appear to have strong personal ties. But Devesh Kapur, the director of Asia programmes at Johns Hopkins University, said that while the rally had 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.”