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'Howdy, Modi!'- Thousands, plus Trump, cheer for PM Narendra Modi

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on September 23, 2019 Published on September 23, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump at 'Howdy Modi!' rally.   -  Reuters

It was an extraordinary spectacle in Houston in more ways than one with President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi marching around a packed stadium holding hands and waving to cheering crowds surrounding them.

Trump made a short speech at the 'Howdy, Modi' rally in which he told tens of thousands of Indian-Americans, who had voted overwhelmingly against the Republicans in 2016, that they had no ”better friend” than him. He then watched with an expression of almost bemused admiration as Modi made a barnstorming, election-style speech, touting his government’s achievements and launching a blistering attack on Pakistan.

“Where do you find conspirators of 9/11 and 26/11 terror attacks? It is time for a decisive battle against terrorism,” declared Modi to the crowd of almost 50,000 Indian-Americans that gave him a standing ovation when he talked about how his government had abolished Article 370 and thus, he insisted, extended “the rights of other Indians to Jammu & Kashmir.”

Trump’s post-event tweets summed it up. One said simply: “Incredible!” And the second added: “The USA loves India!” The two tweets appeared to be recognition that, for once, the consummate showman US president had been upstaged conclusively by Modi in a way that hadn’t been anticipated at the 'Howdy, Modi' event. Modi, in turn, tweeted, “Thank you Houston for such amazing affection!”

Modi's speech

Modi pulled out all the stops during his 45-minute speech at the NRG Stadium in Houston, listing the milestones achieved by his government during its first term and also outlining how he would take India to new heights by 2024 when, he insisted, India would be a $5-trillion economy.

He added that, by then, the government would have also spent $1.3 trillion on building the country’s infrastructure. He added that during its first term, his government had achieved an average annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent, though Congress leaders contest that claim. “No government has ever reached that average,” he asserted, adding that this was accompanied by low inflation, a low fiscal deficit and also record foreign direct investment.

Modi, who’s in the United States to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, also dwelt at length on the government’s achievements in taking cooking gas and electricity to almost all parts of the country and said that India would be “open-defecation free” by October 2, which marks the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

It was evident even when Trump and Modi arrived on stage together that the star of the evening for the charged-up audience was the Indian leader who got rousing cheers every few sentences. Modi began by making a short speech in English, starting with “Howdy my friends,” and offering unrestrained praise for Trump, even appearing to endorse him for a second term. Modi said: “He has already made the American economy strong again. We in India have connected well with President Trump. ‘Abki baar Trump sarkar’.”  Then, he lavished extra praise on Trump, saying: “He has achieved much for the US and the world. When I met him for the first time, he said: ‘India has a true friend in the White House.’ ”

Compliments from Trump

Trump responded with equally generous compliments and added that India had, in the last decade, lifted 300 million people out of poverty and that 140 million Indians would join the middle-classes in the coming ten years. He also spoke of the growth of US exports to India, spending by New Delhi on US defence supplies and joint military exercises staged by the two countries.

The US President also appeared to hint that he might be willing to visit India soon when he mentioned that the first-ever National Basketball Association (NBA) match would take place in India. Trump said: “We are committed to ensuring Indians have access to the world’s best products. Soon India will have access to NBA basketball. Thousands of people will gather in Mumbai next week to watch the first NBA game in India. Am I invited, Prime Minister? Don’t be surprised, I may come."

Trump emphasised the common values shared by the US and India, the world’s two largest democracies. Traditionally, Indian Americans lean towards the Democrats, and it looks to be no different in 2020.

A survey reported by the Wall Street Journal said then when asked about how they vote in the next elections, close to 65 per cent of the Indian-Americans polled said they regarded the Democratic Party favourably. Trump’s appearance with Modi at the rally was an attempt to get more Indian-Americans to wear MAGA hats. While many Indian-Americans favour Trump’s economic and taxation policies, his clampdown immigration, especially on the work-visa programme, has worried many in the community.

There are reports now that the Trump administration, in a bid to ease bilateral trade tensions and improve the ‘atmospherics’ between the two countries, could offer India a limited trade deal. The deal, which the reports have said could be inked by the two leaders as early as this week, is expected to see Washington restoring benefits to India under the Generalized System of Preferences or GSP, aimed at promoting economic development, that Trump had lifted earlier in the year when he called the country the “king of tariffs.”

In exchange, India would remove certain restrictions on electronics, medical devices and some farm items that have irritated Washington.

Modi stressed the pulling power that he was bringing to the event when he pointed out that millions in India would be glued to their TV screens, even though it was late on a Sunday evening. In an adroit touch, addressing Trump, he added: “Earlier you introduced me to your family. Today, I have the honour to introduce you to my family --over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe.”

But Modi may have taken the American President and legislators by surprise when he launched into a headline-making, no-holds barred attack on Pakistan, even though he didn’t mention the country by name.

The over three-hour Houston marathon event also included lengthy fusion and Indian musical and dance items that involved hundreds of performers.

But the grand finale came when Modi and Trump clasped hands and walked triumphantly around the stadium, ending by posing for photographers in front of the US and Indian flags. They will be meeting in the days to come, but it was clear Sunday night that Modi had delivered a show-stealing performance. 

Published on September 23, 2019
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