The Atlantic: ‘Howdy, Modi!’ Was a Display of Indian Americans’ Political Power

A thousands-strong rally to honor the Indian prime minister—and the legions of protesters outside—showed how the community’s influence is growing ahead of 2020.

HOUSTON, Texas—The morning twilight was still shifting to daylight as throngs of Indians and Indian Americans assembled in a giant parking lot in Sugar Land, Texas, yesterday. A line of 14 buses was waiting to charter them free of charge to Houston’s NRG Stadium, where they would soon catch sight of both Narendra Modi and Donald Trump at “Howdy, Modi!,” the Indian prime minister’s latest address to his supporters in the United States.

They’d adorned their bodies in the name of both ancestry and functionality. The spectrum of colors that spanned their saris and kurtas was an homage to their homeland, while others wore jackets despite Houston’s humidity. The latter was a design choice, because no bags would be allowed in the stadium. Once they hit Houston, they’d have to line up for a security check with 50,000 others like themselves.

Inside the back of bus No. 4, the Houston physician Meena Murti accepted some apple slices from her father as she explained to me that her parents had retired to Sugar Land, with its strong Indian-diaspora network, just about five years ago. She said she’d rather stay out of politics, but was nevertheless excited to see Trump and Modi side by side. “I think a lot of polarization occurs because of mob psychology,” she told me, speaking specifically about American politics these days. But her observation could very well apply to Indian politics too: In both countries, divisive nationalist leaders are promoting majoritarian politics and spinning the truth to appeal to their base voters, while competing media narratives are weaponized against each other in a battle for dominance.

Although Houston’s Indian community leaders had started bidding for Modi’s visit months ago, the rally coincided with a flash point in India’s history that’s deepening divisions within the South Asian diaspora. Last month, India stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy by abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a provision that had previously given the contested region self-rule, and allegations of human-rights abuses have surfaced there amid a media blackout. Meanwhile, a crackdown on suspected undocumented immigrants in India’s northeastern state of Assam has left nearly 2 million Muslims from Bangladesh at risk of statelessness. Activists, human-rights groups, and three Nobel Peace Prize winners have called for the Gates Foundation to repeal a humanitarian award it’s giving Modi, arguing that such an honor would legitimize ethnonationalism and undermine human rights. Modi’s supporters insist his actions are necessary for development, with some arguing that reports of violence are baseless and “anti-Hindu.”

While its organizers insist “Howdy, Modi!” was meant to merely highlight the Indian American story—as Trump and Modi broker energy partnerships in Houston and a possible trade deal at the UN General Assembly this week in New York—the rally was really a power play for the two leaders. It gave them both a chance to capitalize on the enthusiastic display of Indian and Indian American voters in the crowd. Indians reelected Modi in a landslide victory earlier this year in the world’s largest democratic election, and many Indian Americans have been front and center helping him maintain a positive image on the world stage. It’s support the prime minister wants to keep cultivating—and that Trump wants to take advantage of too. Yet the tens of thousands who came to the rally, either to cheer on the two world leaders or protest their policies in demonstrations outside, were clear evidence that the Indian American community is not a monolith politically—and that their contrasting voices, and votes, are becoming more influential as the 2020 election approaches.

Radha Hegde, a New York University professor and co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora, framed Modi’s Houston rally as spotlighting a voting bloc most Americans don’t consider. “In this moment of Hindu nationalism,” she told me, “they are being awakened as Hindu Americans.”

As the bus reached the stadium, Murti’s father, 74-year-old Girdhar Agarwal, told me that even though he lives in a historically red-leaning region that recently flipped blue, he’s a big fan of Donald Trump.

“He’s doing a lot of things for immigration and things like that,” Agarwal said. He lowered his voice, watching his words: “Trying to keep our … our … you know … people in and illegals out.”

As the attendees hopped off the buses and fell in line to enter the stadium, volunteers were ready to feed them: cucumber-and-cream-cheese mini croissants, a few varieties of upma, and chai. One volunteer wearing a blue blazer, with a large white lotus sticker for India’s ruling BJP on her left lapel, pointed me to the media entrance.

The Texas India Forum, a newly established nonprofit that hosted and organized “Howdy, Modi!,” had invited hundreds of organizations to be “welcome partners” for the event, says Jugal Malani, a Houston philanthropist and chairperson for the event. Organizations ranging from Silicon Valley groups to several chapters of HSS, the Hindu culture-and-catechism school network inspired by India’s Hindu-nationalist mother organization, the RSS, all signed up. It was part of a strategic orchestration to ensure that 50,000 tickets would be claimed; leaders of every group reached out to their own people to market the event, he told me.

The Dallas residents Quaid and Rashida Mahuwala, Dawoodi Bohra Muslims who immigrated from Dhaka 25 years ago, explained to me why it was important for them to attend the rally. “We have come collectively as a religious Bohra community to support Modi, that we are peace-loving Muslims,” said Rashida, who was dressed in a rose-colored two-piece rida. “So far, what I have seen, he has done pretty good to all of the communities, I believe,” her husband, Quaid, added.

When I asked whether the mob lynchings in India, which for many Muslims have come to symbolize their existence under a Hindu-nationalist regime, resonate with him, Quaid immediately pursed his lips. “Yeah, it does, and I hope things get settled down pretty soon,” he said. “We hope for that, for everybody.”

Outside, protesters, estimated in the thousands, gathered near the stadium in a railed-off section, including anti-Hindu-nationalism demonstrators, Kashmiri Muslims, Sikhs for Khalistan, anti-Trump activists, and members of Black Lives Matter. A white vehicle on the street had the words RSS—for the mother organization of India’s Hindu-nationalist groups—and Hitler written on one side, with MODI is Terrorist Fascist Killer covering one set of passenger doors. At least a couple of Modi effigies bobbed up and down within the crowds. “Azadi!” many of the protesters screamed in unison. “Freedom!”

Inside, artists performed a series of regional, classical, and fusion dances and music sets, and the crowd watched an onstage sketch about the life of an Indian American girl named Sonia, a regional spelling-bee finalist. Born and raised in Texas as the only Indian girl in her school, she starts to feel whitewashed, like she doesn’t truly know her roots, when she meets fellow Indian Americans in college who seem more connected to Indian culture. Eventually, Sonia becomes more confident in her identity, and the story’s narrator praises her evolution: “There’s our Sonia, brown and proud in red, white, and blue!”

The onstage acts may have excited members of the stadium crowd, many of whom got on their feet to move to the music’s beat. But they represented less the reality of Indian Americans’ lives and more the performance of Indian identity that’s sometimes rooted in stereotypical story lines. As the announcers and politicians who later came onstage emphasized the community’s excellence and hard work, it was clearly the kind of Indian American story the event wanted to project. There was no mention of the Ghadar Party, the San Francisco–founded multireligious revolutionary group that advocated for India’s independence in the 20th century, nor the alliances between African Americans and Dalit Americans that have existed for decades as they fight for civil rights. Nor was there any mention of how thousands of Indians are stuck in a green-card backlog, how Indians claiming persecution in their home country are currently on a hunger strike at U.S. immigration detention centers, or how Indians are one of the fastest-growing undocumented groups in America.

No matter how much more complex the Indian American story is than the version promoted by rally organizers, one thing is undeniable: These voters now have enough political power to force U.S. politicians to take serious notice, says Toby Chaudhuri, a former White House strategist during the Obama administration who now works with the super PAC AAPI Victory Fund. Indian Americans, while only about 1 percent of the population, are the wealthiest minority group in America and among the most generous donors to U.S. presidential elections. “2020 is going to have the most diverse electorate that the U.S. has ever seen,” he told me in an interview before the rally. “The desi play and the Hindu play will be front stage.” Trump’s appearance at the rally, then, was not only a sign of support for a like-minded leader. It was a show of force to attract a voting bloc that knows its own value.

Adapa Prasad, the vice president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, acknowledged to me that most Indian Americans lean left and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. About half of both Indian Americans and American Hindus have an unfavorable view of Trump, even as vocal sections of the diaspora love Modi. But Prasad suggested that Trump has perhaps an unexpected opening in 2020.

“Recently, the response of Democrats has really irritated and upset the entire Indian American community,” he told me in an interview before the event, referring to Democrats’ condemnations of Modi’s actions in Kashmir and the proposals from 2020 candidates to tax wealthy Americans. “That is not going to gel with the Indian American community,” he said. “Democratic leaders like Bernie Sanders, [he] has no idea about Kashmir, he has zero idea about Kashmir.”

Modi may well have helped Trump’s cause during yesterday’s rally. When the prime minister, during his address, fiercely defended his decision to repeal Article 370, the audience cheered with thunderous applause. Modi tried to extend the goodwill to Trump. “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar,” Modi teased from the podium. The line was a play off Modi’s own campaign slogan: This time, a Trump government.

Trump and Modi echoed each other when they both emphasized their respective fights against terrorism. “It is time to fight a divisive battle against terrorism and all those who promote terrorism,” Modi said, referring not just to genuine terrorist groups, but to his critics too. He asked his “family”—as he deemed the 50,000 attendees—to give Trump a standing ovation for his commitment to fighting terrorism. “We stand proudly in defense of liberty and we are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said. The audience gave him another ovation then, without additional encouragement.

Nearly two dozen American elected officials joined Trump and Modi for the event, including Republican Representative Pete Olson of Texas, who has long been close to India; Democratic Representatives Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, whose nearby districts are home to many Indian Americans; and Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the only Indian American member of Congress in attendance. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, took to MSNBC instead, where he reinforced that pluralism is a value the Indian American community reveres. “The president is just misinformed if he thinks showing up at this rally is somehow going to help him with the Indian American vote,” Khanna said.

As the rally ended, the crowd filed out of the stadium to pick up free bags of Modi-branded namkeen that volunteers distributed. A man with a bowl haircut and glasses, wearing a white shirt with “Modi 19” on its back, snapped some pictures of the protesters outside. I asked him what he thought of them. “They have their opinion, right?” he said. He revealed he’s originally from Gujarat, the state Modi presided over before he was elected prime minister. “We used to have those common issues where people were fighting,” he said. “The fight was mainly used to get [both sides involved] in politics.

“But in his world that doesn’t exist,” he added, referring to Modi’s vision of India. “We don’t have any riots.”

I asked about the 2002 riots in Gujarat when more than 1,000 Muslims died. That’s what first put Modi on the international map, I said. “Riots in Gujarat? What’s the last time you heard about riots in Gujarat?” he said. “People like us come here, it’s because of the security. They didn’t provide that before [in India]. Now they do.”

He gave me only his first name at first, but then later disclosed it. He didn’t want me to assume he was biased. Prayag Modi, no relation to the prime minister. He extended his arm for a hard handshake. “I am also Modi,” he said.

This article first appeared in The Atlantic