I have just got my VIP pass for the ‘Howdy Modi’ summit on Sunday, September 22. By the time this column appears, I should be heading for Houston, Texas. The venue is the massive NRG stadium, which can accommodate 50,000 people. But there aren’t any seats available. The free event is already a sell-out, with over 50,000 registered attendees. To say the least, the occasion is likely to be momentous and memorable, especially with United States President Donald Trump confirming his participation.
As it happened, I was in Houston just last week, as a speaker at the JLF Houston literature festival. The Indian Ambassador to the US, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who inaugurated it, was gracious enough publicly to acknowledge that we were in college together. Indian Consul General in Houston, Dr Anupam Ray, played a crucial role not only in getting the JLF to Houston, but proposing Modi’s visit to the energy capital of North America. By Friday, September 13, rumours were rife that US President Donald Trump would also show up at the summit, sharing the dais with Modi. After a couple of days’ suspense, an official communique from the White House confirmed the news. The atmosphere at the Indian Consulate was electric, with scores of top foreign service diplomats, led by S. Jaishankar, our external affairs minister, expected in Houston. In addition, Indian American community leaders, the real organisers and hosts, were working day and night to manage the mega logistics. Tying up loose ends and coordinating the efforts from India was BJP’s foreign affairs and overseas outreach head, Vijay Chauthaiwale.
Just think: when was the last time that a serving US president was a guest in his own country at a function honouring a foreign head of state? Never. At least not in my living memory. But this time it is happening, almost as if to confirm ‘Modi hai to mumkin hain.’ Modi makes it possible, to put it ‘modistly.’ The ‘Howdy Modi’ event on September 22 is already a triumph of diplomacy, foreign policy, publicity, and organisational ability. There are billboards all over with huge blow-ups of the Indian Prime Minister looking down benignly upon curious Texans. With a median income of $100,000, Indians Americans are a wealthy and influential minority in this country. They have, however, traditionally voted and supported the Democratic party. President Donald Trump, by attending the meeting with Modi, will want to change that. Why would he miss the chance to address a rally of this size, with a rich, niche clientele, handed to him on a platter?
PM Modi and Trump met less than a month back, on August 26 at the tony French seaside, Biarritz, on the sidelines of the G7 summit. There was much hand, if not back, slapping, widely televised and lapped up by audiences across the world. What is more, Modi got Trump to backtrack on Kashmir, where the latter had gratuitously offered to mediate, if not intervene. Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s move to blackmail world leaders into focussing on Kashmir by threatening nuclear war backfired miserably. The Ministry of External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, had its counter-strategy in place, as was evident at the United Nations Human Rights Commission on September 9 and 10.
What, then, can we expect out of the Modi-Trump pageant at Houston? Some hugs and hand-shakes without a doubt. Also a couple of major, even dramatic, announcements. But just the visual impact of the leaders of the world’s two greatest democracies tag teaming up in front of a gigantic audience is sure to send a powerful message across the globe. It will also underscore India’s arrival on the world stage as well as the power of the Indian diaspora in the US.
Trade wars and tariff disputes between India and the US are likely to be overshadowed if not forgotten. Sticky issues such as immigration, green cards, and H1B visa may be eased up a bit. India’s support, even sending peace-keeping troops to Afghanistan, cannot be ruled out in return for US backing us on Kashmir. Whatever actually transpires, what the “sharper edges” in Indo-US relations, as Jaishankar called them, are likely to be softened somewhat. Indeed, optics aside, the prospects of a strategic and economic alliance between the US and India seem bright.
As to PM Modi, he is on a roll in the US, a country which once denied him a visa. After the summit, he is to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 27. He last spoke here after his 2014 victory. Modi will also receive an award for this Swachh Bharat campaign from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.