When I first heard of the Howdy Modi program, I thought the organizers were a bit overambitious in closing a venue that can seat more than 50,000 people. This was after all a concert venue for Beyonce, The Rolling Stones, Metallica, Taylor Swift among others. It can seat more than twice that of Wankhede stadium.
There was obviously a lot of build-up to this event and why not? In many ways, this was unprecedented in America. Some commentators were saying that Indian Americans are taking a big risk by attracting attention for the wrong reasons. The general MO of most Indian Americans is to put their head down and work. In contrast, other communities are much better at organizing politically, in particular, the Muslim community. I find some of these arguments absurd. It’s a country where lobbying is the norm. Raising your voice is the norm. Demanding your rights is the norm. Expressing yourself openly is the norm. And here, we are being asked to lie low, don’t even welcome the Indian PM.
There was a lot of talk of thousands of protestors showing up at the event. This quickly brought back memories of what happened at the Indian high commission in London, where Pakistani hooligans did all kinds of damage. Policing works differently in America. Trump’s presence at the event obviously increased security. They were not going to take any chances. They created a large section for the protestors away from the stadium. I noticed a handful of protestors as I walked into the stadium.
While some democrats pulled out because of Trump’s presence, there was a decent representation. Jr. Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, delivered a crisp and good speech. This was followed by Sr. Senator John Cornyn. It’s worth noting that he co-founded and became the co-chairman of the U.S. Senate India Caucus in 2004. Senator Cornyn had the honour of introducing Prime Minister Modi to the crowd and the reception he got from the crowd was something. House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, a Democrat currently serving his 20th term in Congress gave some remarks which seemed a bit like a sermon. It was carefully worded but it was weird for him to be quoting Gandhi and Nehru to an Indian audience. That speech didn’t land well.
Then there was a long pause, most likely due to Trump getting delayed. The crowd went to sleep.
Then came Trump. PM Modi’s introduction of Trump was again carefully crafted. Everyone knows that he likes praise and he got lots of it. However, if you listen carefully, Modi was repeating many obvious things which we have heard before. There were some who thought Modi endorsed Trump when he said Abki Bar Trump Sarkar. See the video again and notice that Modi was just talking about the 2016 campaign. There was a lot of hyperbole but there was no explicit endorsement of Trump. Modi is too seasoned a politician to know which lines not to cross. The loudest cheer in the stadium probably was when Modi said to Trump “My honour to introduce you to my family” Modi woke up the sleeping crowd. And Trump loved it. He hasn’t seen a rally as big as this. And he got a standing ovation when he talked about eradicating radical Islamic terror. For the most part he stuck to the teleprompter, where he is not his natural self. The only time he went off script was when he asked if Modi would invite him to the inaugural NBA game in Mumbai. That might just be the cue Indian Govt was looking for to invite him to be the chief guest at the next Republic Day.
When Modi rose to speak, he was speaking to an audience that was hungry, both in terms of food and his words. The crowd had gathered around 6 AM at the stadium and Modi spoke close to 1 PM local time.
His opening remarks worked like a charm. Many saw his “Sab Accha hai” remark in multiple languages as a response to complaints of Hindi imposition. Maybe they were but my own sense was that Modi knows his crowd better than any politician. He knows that the Indian American community is quite diverse. He was working for the crowd. There were many people from southern states. When he said “Ella Chennagide”, the Kannadigas around me went berserk.
While he spoke extempore, this was relatively a more carefully worded speech. There was something for everyone: Trump, Republicans, Democrats Corporate America, American media and of course the audience in America and in India. The stakes were high. While the applause tore the roof when he mentioned 370, he made several remarks that were directed at Democrats and American media. He talked about the long debate in the parliament and how it was telecast live on TV. He stressed the 2/3rds majority for the abrogation of 370 and in particular the fact that his party didn’t even have a simple majority in the upper house. The next day, the New York Times carried a piece that included this information.
I was struck by how little Modi was conscious of Trump’s presence. He mentioned Trump several times but he never seemed restricted one bit by Trump’s presence. He owned the room. His statement on Pakistan, without mentioning Pakistan was a major highlight. Shekhar Gupta in his analysis concluded that this would’ve been cleared with the Trumps administration before but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The next day Trump in Imran Khan’s presence said “I heard a very aggressive statement from PM Modi. I was not expecting to hear that statement” This didn’t seem like a speech that was pre-approved by the Trump administration.
To me, one of the more interesting moments was when Modi was talking about who was responsible for the 2019 victory. He said it’s the people and Modi alone is nothing. The crowd’s response was more like “Yeah Right” They didn’t buy it.
At the end, the suggested that they take a lap around the stadium, sending secret service into a tizzy. If you carefully notice, the secret service never got the crowd too close. No one was in touching distance unlike in India, where PM Modi often shakes hands with the crowd. This was obviously spontaneous and a perfect way to close the event. Trump and Modi waving at the crowd hand in hand is a powerful statement. This could be seen as an endorsement to Trump. It could also be a statement to Democrats that look, I can do this for anyone I chose to. While an overwhelming majority of Indian Americans supported democrats in the past, things could change. There is a good reason why Indian Americans support democrats. One important reason is lack of choice: Indians tend to be in the coasts: New York, New Jersey, California which are blue states. Texas is a red state and during my earlier interactions, I could sense a lot more support from Trump among the Indian community here as compared to other states. Democratic leadership is being pushed to the left and towards Islamic ideology. In some states, Indian Americans may not be a big force in terms of votes, but they are a big force when it comes to notes. At $110,000 median Indian Americans median household income is the highest in the United States. This is what parties and candidates are after and the way Modi worked the crowd sends out a strong message that he can influence both votes and notes.
To say that this event was totally unprecedented would be wrong. The then British PM David Cameron did show up at Wembley along with PM Modi but needless to say, Howdy Modi was much more significant. And a tough act to follow. I find it hard to imagine another leader from India who could pull off such an event as PM Modi could.
(This article has been written by Mr Ram Prasad)