HOUSTON — In a show of Indian-Americans’ rising political clout, some 50,000 made their way into Houston’s NRG Stadium Sunday for the “Howdy Modi” event kicking off the Indian prime minister’s weeklong visit to the United States.
President Donald Trump also joined in on the festivities — turning the event, which had sold out long before he signed on, into a right-wing populist blowout.
Indian-Americans are a voting bloc that usually votes Democrat, but they also love Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist with a lot in common with the populism of President Trump.
Trump drew enthusiastic cheers when he promised to build business ties with India and pump up sales of Texas gas to the massive, energy-hungry nation. He got even bigger applause when he promised to confront “radical Islamic terrorism,” a common concern Hindu nationalists share with Trump.
When Modi took the stage, he called Trump's presence a “mark of respect for 1.3 billion Indians” and praised him for “his commitment to fight terrorism.”
“I admire him for something more: his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in American future, and a strong resolve to make America great again,” Modi said.
While most Indian-Americans voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, Shalabh Kumar, the founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, helped turn Hindu votes red in five key swing states in 2016, and he donated nearly $4 million to help candidate Trump get elected.
“Prime Minister Modi was a Trump before Trump,” Kumar said. “There are a huge amount of similarities.”
Kumar believes Hindu Americans will be a critical constituency for Trump in 2020 and is quick to quote Steve Bannon, his coalition’s co-chair about the importance of their vote.
For attendees like Kumar, the president’s warm-up act for the Indian prime minister was a vindication of Indian-Americans' rising political clout. At the end of the rally, the two leaders held hands for some minutes as they did a slow victory lap around the stadium, waving to their fans.
The Indian diaspora, however, is a lot more diverse than two leaders who took the stage would want to admit. And particularly after Modi’s August crackdown in Kashmir, many see in him as anything but a hero.
Across the street from the stadium, anti-Modi protesters rallied in the humid Houston heat.
“I don’t think there’s anything more obvious than the violence that Modi, the BJP, the RSS Hindu-nationalists espouse and further. People are being killed. Whole communities are being violently intimidated,” Sarah Philips, an Indian-American and Houstonian whose grandparents were Christian migrants from India, told VICE News.
“Modi doesn’t represent me. Trump doesn’t represent me.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Community Summit on September 22, 2019 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo: THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)