Delighted, says Modi as Trump to join US event
President Donald Trump will join Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s September 22 diaspora outreach event in Houston called “Howdy, Modi!”, the White House confirmed early on Monday — a move seen as a boost to India-US relations and a nod to the growing personal equation between the leaders.
Trump will not only attend but also address the event at NRG Stadium for which more than 50,000 people have registered in three weeks, people familiar with arrangements for the programme said. Modi is visiting the US from September 21-27 for events in Houston and to address the UN General Assembly in New York.
While Trump attended factory openings and other ceremonies with foreign leaders, his address at a diaspora outreach event alongside a visiting foreign leader is a rare occurrence.
Trump’s presence will send out a strong signal at a time when Pakistan is planning to bring up the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly, and several American lawmakers have expressed concern about the security lockdown in Jammu & Kashmir.
Pakistan had sought to leverage Trump’s request for help in the Afghan peace talks by seeking his mediation on Kashmir. Trump agreed and repeated his offer three times, before backing off in the face of an unambiguous push back from India.
Trump will also have his eyes on garnering support from the Indian-American community ahead of his re-election bid in 2020. “Howdy, Modi!” will be attended by a bipartisan delegation of US governors, members of Congress, mayors and other officials.
However, the venue of bilateral talks between Trump and Modi is yet to be firmed up, the people quoted above said. Both leaders will have a tight schedule in Houston and it is expected they will hold talks, either one-on-one or with delegations, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
This will be the third meeting between the two leaders this year. They earlier met on the margins of the G20 Summit in Japan and the G7 Summit in France.
Announcing Trump’s participation in the Houston event on Sunday, the White House said it will be a “great opportunity to emphasise the strong ties” between the people of the two countries and to “reaffirm the strategic partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, and to discuss ways to deepen their energy and trade relationship”.
In a set of tweets, Modi described Trump’s participation in “Howdy, Modi!” as a “special gesture”, signifying the special friendship between the two countries. “Delighted that President @realDonaldTrump will join the community programme in Houston… Looking forward to joining the Indian-origin community in welcoming him at the programme,” he said.
Trump’s presence also “highlights the strength of the relationship and recognition of the contribution of the Indian community to American society and economy”, Modi added.
Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Indian ambassador to the US, said the two leaders addressing the event jointly is “unprecedented and historic”. He added that it reflected “not only closeness and comfort levels in the relationship but also the personal chemistry and friendship” between Modi and Trump.
Vijai Chauthaiwale, who is in-charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foreign affairs department, said: “There is a lot of excitement among the diaspora to hear Prime Minister Modi and now with President Trump joining in, there is added excitement. We are booked to capacity and there is another 5,000 people on the waiting list, because Modi is a phenomenon.”
The event will be managed by more than 1,000 volunteers and feature a 90-minute cultural programme, “Woven: The Indian-American Story”, a music, dance and multimedia show with nearly 400 artists. The event, Chauthaiwale said, is an attempt to create a bipartisan interaction with the Indian disapora.
Trump will leave Houston on September 22 for another event with visiting Australian premier Scott Morrison in Wapakoneta, Ohio. The White House said the joint appearances “underscore the important partnerships between the US and India and Australia”.
The three countries are also members, along with Japan, of an informal grouping called the Quad, which has had meetings of officials with growing frequency in the past year.
Trump’s address to the Houston gathering will not be his first to Indian-Americans, who will be packing the venue, coming in from all across the country. His first was in October 2016, when he spoke to them in Edison, New Jersey, as the Republican nominee for the White House.
The Houston event will be Modi’s third diaspora outreach in the US, which he has transformed from small community gatherings, favoured by previous prime ministers, to gigantic events filling massive sports and concert venues, starting with the Madison Square Garden in September 2014, during Modi’s first visit after assuming office. In 2015, it was the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
The NRG Stadium has a capacity of more than 70,000 people, the largest yet for an event by Modi.
That should impress Trump, who often mentions the size of his political rallies, comparing them to those recorded by one of his favourite musicians, Elton John. The White House is eyeballing the numbers in anticipation of the outreach. “The event... is expected to draw tens of thousands of people,” it said in its statement.
Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at Carnegie, a think tank, called Trump’s planned presence at the event “a double-edged sword”. “On the one hand, the sight of a US president and an Indian prime minister on stage at a rally organised for the latter is a coup for Indian diplomacy. And it speaks to the strategic importance of the US-India relationship,” he said.
“On the other hand, it is also an event laden with risk. The president is nothing, if not unpredictable. It is virtually impossible for him to stay on script — as we have seen with his recent remarks on ‘mediating’ the Kashmir dispute.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan will be watching closely. He became the first Pakistani leader to address a similar outreach for Pakistanis, at a sporting venue in Washington in July, the night before his meeting with Trump.
Khan packed the 20,000-seat venue, though the absence of US lawmakers and officials stood out in contrast to Modi’s events that have reflected bipartisan support from US political leaders such as governors, lawmakers and mayors. Nearly 40 senators and House representatives attended the 2014 event.