Trump bromance with Narendra Modi on display at ‘Howdy, Modi’ rally

Trump bromance with Narendra Modi on display at 'Howdy, Modi' rally

Courtney Subramanian

USA TODAY

Published 8:55 AM EDT Sep 22, 2019

WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump met Prime Minster Narendra Modi for the first time in June 2017 at the White House, the two men famously embraced in a bear hug, sparking chemistry that would extend beyond relations between the U.S. and India.

Trump spoke of shared values among the world’s two largest democracies, but it was hardly the only thing they had in common. Both are known for their brash demeanor, contempt for the news media and a predilection for 280-character missives to huge followings on Twitter.

The two leaders will share the stage Sunday at “Howdy, Modi” a rally in Houston before tens of thousands of Indian-Americans. The event, which comes ahead of Modi’s trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, marks the prime minister’s largest crowd since his rock concert-like rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014.

Trump has boasted that he and Modi were “world leaders” in social media, a nod to the prime minister’s now 50.2 million followers and Trump’s own audience of 64.5 million.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan from his 2016 campaign has echoes in Modi’s pro-business “Make in India” campaign two years earlier, and his 2019 motto “NaMo Again,” an abbreviated reference to the prime minister’s name and re-election. The taglines are emblazoned on placards at raucous rallies they hold on the campaign trail.

The Houston event will be the third time Trump and Modi have met in as many months, after they were seen clasping hands at the G-20 in Japan in June and at the G-7 in France in August.

“Howdy, Modi” is seen as a diplomatic win for Modi, whose controversial move last month to strip the Muslim-majority Kashmir of its partial autonomy sparked international scrutiny and angered Pakistan, which also claims the region. The State Department has also expressed concern over India’s crackdown on Kashmir, which included detaining hundreds of people and shuttering internet and mobile service.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been criticized for its hardline Hindu-nationalist agenda, pursuing policies perceived as anti-Muslim and fraying the secular fabric of India. Critics plan to protest the prime minister’s actions and alleged human rights abuses outside the rally in Houston. 

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Much like Trump, Modi has made national security a primary focus, referring to himself as the nation’s “chowdikar,” or watchman, in the wake of a showdown with Pakistan in Kashmir in February. He casts himself as a protector, defending India’s borders from terrorists and enemies while his American counterpart employs similar rhetoric, railing against criminals and migrants “pouring into our country” at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Milan Vaishnav, the head of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Modi’s appearance with Trump is diplomatic validation of his recent policies, signaling to Pakistan that the U.S. stands with India. It could also send a message to China amid an escalating trade war with the U.S. 

“The U.S. president and Indian prime minister sharing a stage and showing a lot of camaraderie and friendship is likely to make some people very nervous in Beijing,” Vaishnav said. 

The United States, he said, is explicit about investing in India as a way to balance China in the region. 

“I think this is an additional way to kind of muscle terms in the U.S.-China relationship,”  Vaishnav said.

But Washington and New Delhi’s own trade war has rankled Trump in recent months, and Modi’s latest trip is aimed at allaying concerns over the strength of the bond between the two countries. Trump hinted to reporters on Wednesday aboard Air Force One that there “could be” a trade-related announcement after the event. “I have a very good relationship with Prime Minister Modi,” he added.

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But the spectacle also is designed to put the president, who is ramping up his own re-election campaign, before an expected audience of 50,000 Indian-Americans, the second largest immigrant group in the U.S. after Mexicans.

The Indian-American population in the U.S., about 4 million, increased by 40% between 2010 and 2017, making them the fastest growing immigrant group in the country, according to a recent report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a South Asian advocacy group.  

“Modi has really energized the Indian-American community and that community, which constitutes about 1% of the overall U.S. population now, is a pretty important one in a lot of political constituencies because we know that they’re upwardly mobile, highly educated, they’re above the median household income and so they actually have some political weight,” Vaishnav says.

“I think Modi is sort of signaling in a way that in this big constituency he actually has some influence over them. And these are people who actually turn out in U.S. elections,” he added. 

Modi, whose 71% approval rating far surpasses Trump’s 44%, has cultivated a massive following among the Indian diaspora. Indian Americans are one of the most politically engaged immigrant groups in the U.S., with 62% casting their vote in 2016, just above the overall U.S. turnout rate of 61.4% and surpassing the rates for both Hispanics and African-Americans. 

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But whether Modi’s global appeal can extend to his American counterpart is less clear. About 66% of Indians disapproved of the president’s job performance while only 28% agreed he was doing well, according to Asian American and Pacific Islander Data (AAPI Data), a survey of Asian-American attitudes from the University of California.

The Houston event shines a light on a glaring contradiction in the Indian-American community. Indians in the U.S. skew strongly Democratic, with 77% of Indian-Americans voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they also overwhelmingly support Modi, a man who echoes Trump’s populist brand of personality politics. 

“I think the barriers they face here as immigrants probably tilt them towards the Democratic party,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, who runs the AAPI Data survey, said of the voting behavior of Indian-Americans.

“But at the same time I think they probably like someone who is trying to create India in a more Western image in terms of public health, cleanliness and making it more business-friendly,” Ramakrishnan said, explaining Modi’s appeal to Indian Americans.

After the Houston event, Modi will receive an award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his campaign to install public toilets in rural parts of India. The move has prompted protests over Modi’s human rights record and provocations in Kashmir.

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Jugal Malani, chairman of the Texas India Forum, which organized the event, said the rally will look beyond politics to instead focus on India’s ascent on the world stage.

“The prime minister is a very popular figure in our community,” he says. “He’s taking care of people below the poverty line and I think that has attracted a lot of people. He’s changing India from the grassroots level.”

Trump’s appearance with Modi could also attract more Indian donors in 2020, according to MR Rangaswami, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and founder of Indiaspora, a nonprofit that works to increase Indian-American civic participation. With an average household income of $107,000 – nearly double that of American-born households – Indian-Americans have become a sought-after donor pool. Rangaswami points out several 2020 candidates have appealed to Indian-Americans.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California is half Indian-American. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, is not Indian but identifies as Hindu and maintains close relations with the BJP government. Sen. Corey Booker, D-New Jersey, recruited several Indian-American staffers for his 2020 campaign, including his national press secretary and Iowa political director. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont named former Rep. Ro Khanna, who is of Indian descent, as one of his top advisers.

“The community is writing checks and I’m sure that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the president,” Rangaswami says. “But the activism should also be noticed. In almost every 2020 campaign you can see there’s an Indian-American involved there. And that’s just one more milestone for our community.”


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