Houston, Texas – It was Sunday morning in Houston, Texas.
Usually, Sundays mean American football. But not last week. Instead, tens of thousands of people filled the massive stadium to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Thousands of others gathered outside, telling Modi to “go back”.
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Tensions were high. Nearby, a police officer warned the media not to “incite” protesters by interviewing or getting too close to them. It was a request that soon became painfully clear to Al Jazeera but not in the way the officer predicted.
As Al Jazeera cameraman Gilbert De La Rosa attempted to film placard-carrying protesters, a handful of men, wearing “Volunteer” shirts and official credentials for the Modi event, attempted to yank his camera from him. After a brief scuffle, police intervened and threatened to arrest one of the men.
Welcome to the showcase organisers dubbed “Howdy Modi” – a huge affair drawing inspiration from US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies.
Modi spent the weekend in Houston, meeting with CEOs of big energy companies and Indian-American organisations in an attempt to find new money for his struggling economy. He was also in the US for the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
But Sunday was different. It was all about rallying his base in the diaspora.
ICYMI: Our Sunday in Houston at the #HowdyModi event started with volunteers and at least one organizer wearing credentials attacking our cameraman @DelarosaGilAJAM See it here. #howdymodi pic.twitter.com/aKz9tWgaKQ
— Chris Sheridan (@ChrisSheridan34) September 24, 2019
Like India itself, the atmosphere was a sensory hodgepodge of colour, sound and protest. Hare Krishna worshippers handed out business cards for their vegan restaurant, a Gujarati reporter donned a cowboy hat and gave a “Texas-size welcome” to his TV viewers. Celebratory drums could be heard while sequined-dressed performers danced to pop music. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters who decried Modi’s policies on religious minorities and the disputed Kashmir region rallied outside.
Modi had a special guest: Trump, who appeared to be popular among many of Indian-Americans in attendance.
“We are really happy that Trump is involved in building this relationship,” said Satish Nyack, 55, a doctor who came from Andrews, Texas, to see the show. He has lived in the US for 25 years. He attended Trump’s inauguration in Washington, DC, in 2017.
“He’s a go-getter,” said Nyack of Modi. “He gets things done,” he added, sporting a bright orange shirt with Modi’s face on it.
The Houston event was not Modi’s first. Just after his election victory in 2014, he rallied Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden in New York. But “Howdy Modi” brought 50,000 attendees, which is probably what also caught Trump’s attention.
“One of the largest and most prominent diasporas in the world is the Indian-American community,” said Aparna Pande, director of the India Initiative at the Hudson Institute. “It’s rich, it’s well-to-do and it is very plugged in.”
It is an acknowledgement many people in Houston appreciated.
“This is the first time we feel like we’re being recognised for the contributions we’ve been making to our parent country,” said Anand Reddy, 43, from Odessa, Texas. He was attending with his wife and two kids. “I think culturally the power of non-resident Indians is coming to the fore,” he added.
"There's a reign of terror in Kashmir since [Narendra Modi] became Prime Minister." – Sumaya Rashit, protester.
A “Howdy, Modi!” rally held in Texas, US, was attended by almost 50,000 Indian Americans, but not everyone was happy to see the Indian leader. pic.twitter.com/VOcGm09CX4
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 23, 2019
The US leader knew this. With an election year approaching, Trump needs all the help he can get even in a solidly Republican state like Texas which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Trump admitted, while visiting a Coast Guard station just before the event.
As the two men took the stage, the near-capacity crowd roared its approval.
“Good morning, Texas!” yelled Modi who was banned from the United States for years after failing to stop the 2002 religious riots in Gujarat state – while he was chief minister – that left hundreds dead.
“Friends, we have a very special person with us,” Modi continued to applause. “He needs no introduction.”
As Trump beamed, Modi heaped praise on the businessman-turned-president. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” filled the stadium as Trump was introduced.
In a very un-Trump-like speech, the US president stuck to the script.
“You are proud to be American,” he told them. “And we are proud to have you as Americans.”
He spoke of the economic benefits of both countries working together and the value of lowering tariffs on products to boost trade. It was a sales pitch that Trump has made many times to many different audiences.
Indeed, the two nations hope to sign a trade pact this week in an effort to ease economic tensions heightened, in part, by a White House decision to revoke India’s special trade status earlier this year.
But with a crowd filled with Hindu supporters, Trump reverts back to a familiar theme that resonates. “We are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the tenet of radical Islamic terrorism,” he said eliciting the biggest applause of the day.
Outside the venue, not everyone is enamoured by the Trump-Modi lovefest. An estimated 2,000 people are gathered in protest. They chant “fascist Modi” and call him a “terrorist”.
Modi drew international criticism recently when his government decided to strip the disputed Kashmir territory of its special status. Many people saw it as a move to make Kashmir a permanent part of India.
The decision has sparked weeks of demonstrations and a police crackdown in Kashmir that led to the arrests of local politicians and activists. Similar demonstrations broke out in neighbouring Pakistan, where many people support the Muslim-majority area’s right to self-determination.
“There is a reign of terror that has been going on in Kashmir since he became the Prime Minister,” said Sumaya Rashid, a Houston resident originally from Kashmir. “I’m very concerned about my parents back home,” she adds. “I haven’t talked to them in eight weeks.” Like many people in Houston, she is disappointed Trump joined Modi on stage.