Whoever came up with the term ‘Howdy Modi’ for the massive September 22 rally in Houston, Texas, at which the Indian Prime Minister addressed 50,000 supporters, knew their Texas lingo. And the staffer in the White House who convinced President Trump to join Modi at the raucous rally certainly knew how to leverage Indians’ strength (and sometimes, weakness) — emotions — well.
Everything about Texas is big. The state stretches for 800 miles from east to west, and nearly 900 miles north to south, creating a landmass which is more than a fifth of India’s size. Texas is a huge economy and, had it been a sovereign country today (like it was in the 1800s), it would be the 10th largest economy in the world by GDP (ahead of South Korea and Canada). Texas-size is a metaphor for anything big, and there was no better place to hold an event of this scale to satisfy the egos of two world leaders.
So, why Howdy? This is an iconic greeting popularised at Texas A&M University, a world-class research institution about 60 miles northwest of Houston, with proud traditions dating back a hundred years. When the university was first launched in 1876, the A&M stood for Agriculture and Mechanical respectively, reflecting Texas’ proud heritage as one of the country’s largest farming and industrial states, a record it holds to this day. The first thing an Aggie — anyone remotely connected to the university — says to another is “ Howdy! ”, and the term is just as symbolic as Jai Ho .
Modi has had many accomplishments in his political career, but for optics alone, having the President of the United States next to him, on stage, was unmatched. It would have been remarkable enough had Trump participated in a Washington DC area rally. American presidents, for whom time is the most precious commodity, are not known to join rallies of foreign diaspora populations. But for the President to travel three hours on Air Force One to be by Modi’s side was a historically impressive political feat for the Prime Minister, unparalleled in modern times. Other world leaders at the UN General Assembly were, without a doubt, privately jealous of Modi.
The two leaders have much in common. They are both staunch nationalists and look to the world to support their internal priorities rather than seek global utopian bliss. They’re both pragmatists and do not judge each other through lenses of purity, morality or ideology. They’re shrewd users of social media and know how to keep their supporters aligned with their goals. Both patronise, indeed encourage, hero worship.
Trump, by appearing with Modi, speaking at the rally, and staying at the event until the Indian Prime Minister was done speaking, brilliantly drew a contrast with the Democrats about how they have a record of mistreating — and even insulting — Modi, before 2014.
The Obama administration would not even grant Modi a visa until he became PM in 2014. At issue, of course, was Modi’s alleged handling of the Gujarat riots when he was Chief Minister of the State. Although he had actually been absolved of all charges in April 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team, the Obama White House continued to enforce its tourist visa ban, reducing him to the same status as rogue Middle East leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi.
In September 2014, Modi forgave all and accepted an invitation to visit the US as the PM. But an obscure, self-styled human rights organisation called the American Justice Center used the media spotlight to file a lawsuit against him, in the US District Court in New York, for violating the US law! The case alleged that Modi “carried out crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings and torture” under the US Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).
From granting no visa to being the chief guest
The US court again disrespected Modi by not throwing the case out immediately on the grounds that it does not have territorial jurisdiction in the matter. The snub continued during his trip. When asked, the Obama State Department hedged and never directly stated that Modi is not culpable for Indian acts under US law just as a US citizen’s acts in the US are not, under Indian law.
Instead, the state maintained that the AJC lawsuit was of no merit because of a technicality — it had been brought against a head of state who had diplomatic immunity. On January 15, 2015, indeed, the court dismissed the case against Modi, under the same premise. So, there’s a distinct possibility that the case could be reinstated and prosecuted against Modi after he leaves office.
In contrast, the Republicans, when they controlled both House and Senate, invited Modi to address a joint house of Congress, a distinguished honour reserved for world leaders of great stature.
Trump’s decision to appear with Modi exploited this difference between the two political parties. As a Republican, his message to the diaspora was simple, yet ingenious: “We love and respect Modi as much as you do. Why don’t you support Republicans in 2020?”
Trump needs every marginal Indian American vote in 2020 that he can get. Houston is home to one of the largest Indian American populations in the country, and the event was watched live by millions more. The diaspora is increasingly becoming a significant voting block in American elections, choosing Trump’s rival Democratic party by a margin of 75/25 in the 2016 elections. Even a ten per cent swing in marginal constituencies could decide who the winner could be in 2020.
The massive victory
In the recent years, Texas has become a magnet for Indian Americans who are fleeing high taxes and excessive regulations in liberal Democratic states like California. The City of New York just passed a law saying that it is illegal for a person’s employer, coworkers, or housing provider such as landlords to use the term “illegal alien,” where its use is intended to demean, humiliate, or offend another person.” Never mind that the term is used extensively in US immigration law. And the fine? A maximum of $250,000.
The concern for Republicans — and Trump — is real. If sufficient numbers of Indian Americans move to Texas, seeking a better life of no state income taxes and limited regulations, but continue to vote for the Democrats, Texas could switch from Red to Blue, that is, from a solid Republican stronghold to a Democratic state. If this happens, the Democrats would easily win the 2020 election. In the 2018 Senate elections, Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate now running for President, came within 2.5 per cent points of beating Republican Ted Cruz, who appeared alongside Trump at the Howdy Modi rally.
For Modi, the joint appearance was a massive victory against Imran Khan who tried to politicise Kashmir but lost out. It’s also a direct message to China that the US, by teaming so closely with India, needs China a little less.
For all the euphoria from Houston leading to the UN General Assembly, however, both leaders were reminded of how fast the news cycle shapes modern coverage. Exactly 24 hours after the rally, the world’s attention had switched to Trump’s latest Ukranian scandal — and three days later, a possible impeachment of Trump by the House of Representatives.