In terms of scale, optics and chemistry, the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event at Houston in the United States turned out to be a rock star-like show with Prime Minister Narendra Modi being the cynosure of all eyes. A showman that he is, Modi has, over the years, converted Indian diaspora into a powerful political capital and a vehicle for political messaging, both domestically and internationally. With a packed audience of nearly 50,000 at NRG Stadium and American President Donald Trump and senators being on the stage, it was by far the biggest gathering for any elected foreign leader on the US soil. Such outings, complete with well-orchestrated speeches, meticulous arrangements, hype and hoopla, have helped him acquire a larger-than-life image and set a nationalist narrative that thrives on a sense of pride over India’s achievements and its growing role in international affairs. The grand spectacle associated with such NRI meetings may have helped the BJP electorally and politically, but it requires hard diplomatic efforts and strong performance on the economic front to achieve real benefits for the country. However, it is hard to ignore the contrast that the engagements of Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan evoke in the US, in terms of the treatment they receive from the American administration and the nature of their agendas. While Khan is sure to harp on the single point agenda of Kashmir, during his upcoming address at the United Nations General Assembly, Modi and his team are set to focus on larger issues like trade agreements, environment, peace and joint fight against global terrorism.
Modi’s earlier outings to address Indians in New York, London, Sydney and Toronto have been high-octane affairs, with chanting crowds and song-and-dance shows in sold-out stadiums. The Houston event had the trappings of a campaign meeting with Modi endorsing Trump’s leadership in glowing terms. The rally was an opportunity for Trump to present himself as a supporter of legal immigrants and erase his image of an anti-immigrant racist. He was, in fact, happy to play second fiddle at the mega event that truly belonged to Modi. The Republican President is keen on securing the support of Indian Americans who are the most influential among ethnic communities, and has proposed an immigration system similar to that of Canada and Australia that would favour high-skilled professionals, benefiting Indians waiting to immigrate. There are nearly four million people of Indian descent in the US, the highest earning ethnic group with more than double the national average income and key drivers of technological revolution and innovation. Clearly, Modi has redefined the optics of India’s relations with the US at a critical time when it is seeking to play a larger role in global affairs.