Political ideologies and beliefs aside, I can tell you without the slightest hesitation that the #HowdyMody Summit in Houston last Sunday (yes, that is how it started trending on the social media!) was nothing short of spectacular. A sentiment, I am sure, that would have been echoed by almost everyone who was there or watched the event from around the world – other than the small group of protestors who had gathered outside the venue to peacefully share their concerns around recent developments in Kashmir. Here are some of the reasons, which made the event special:
Size matters: This was the single-largest gathering of Indian-Americans at a single venue in America, ever.
NRG Stadium, one of the largest American football stadiums in Houston, had been specifically chosen by the organisers, the Texas India Forum, as it could comfortably house 60,000 people — more than three times the number of people who attended Prime Minister Modi’s Madison Square Garden event in September 2014. Texas, as people in the know would tell you, is known for doing everything in style and super-sized, and commitments to fill up the stadium with over 55,000 Indian-Americans, non-resident Indians and Indophiles, like me, were ‘locked and loaded’ well before White House announced President Trump’s intention of joining Mr Modi at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event.
The net result: that this was the single largest gathering of Indian-Americans in the America’s ever — including 20+ extremely significant US elected officials from across party lines, several hundred CEOs, and people from across the country and overseas — made the venue feel like a Live Aid concert, which had to be seen to be believed.
Houston Strong: Visiting Government of India officials have traditionally visited Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles / San Francisco. So, why Houston?
Well, Houston, is the 4th largest and the most diverse metropolis in the United States, of which India, is its fourth-largest trading partner — behind Brazil, China, and Mexico. Between 2009 and 2018, trade between Houston and India averaged $4.8 billion annually and was at $7.2 billion in 2018. These volumes are expected to rise quite significantly as India continues to source crude and LNG from the United States, a key focus of both governments as they work toward balancing the trade deficit between them, while India diversifies its energy resources. These energy shipments will largely be initiated out of Houston, which is referred to as the energy capital of the world, as it (and Texas) plays home to a disproportionately large number of US headquarters (and in several cases, global headquarters) of the energy majors (and several of India’s public sector oil and gas companies).
Houston is also home to the world’s largest and best medical centre — the Texas Medical Centre — and is known for its chemicals, materials and space industries. Additionally, Houston (and Texas) is home to the second-largest concentration of Fortune 500 company HQs anywhere in the world. It is therefore hardly any surprise that Houston is likely to play an increasingly important role in the India-US bilateral going forward.
Cultural Khichdi: Howdy, Modi? Really?
The ‘Howdy, Modi’ title and program line-up did a fascinating job of encapsulating the multiculturalism and innate dichotomy faced by many people living in a globalised world. Though most of the people in the audience were ethnically Indian and were proud to see Indian represent itself so boldly on the global stage, they have chosen to be, and are, clearly American. (And, in the case of the several thousand young Indian-Americans in the stadium, undisputedly, American).
This being a community event, the juxtaposition of a traditional Texan welcome, with Indian values and a celebration of the art and culture of both countries was only appropriate, and clear for everyone to see: from the way people dressed — in the finest Indian attire, western formals, Sunday casuals and even NaMo-branded garments — to the various cultural performances that sought to present a rich kaleidoscope of art forms to the audience. (The showstopper for me was an outstanding vocal rendition that combined the extremely beautiful, Vaishnav Jan To Tene kahiye, with the soul-stirring Amazing Grace!).
Post the main event, it was also seen in the traditional Indian — vegetarian lunch — that was served to several hundred C-suite executives and special guests in a private dining room where the Prime Minister, amongst other things, unveiled plaques to commemorate the launch of the first Siddhi Vinayak temple in Houston and the launch of an Eternal Gandhi museum to mark the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
The rousing speeches made by senior members of the Congressional delegation, who cut across party lines, could little prepare you for the roars of ‘Modi, Modi’ and ‘USA, USA’ that reverberated across the stadium with the entrance of Prime Minister Modi, and later, President Trump.
However, it is what ensued thereafter — with both gentlemen on stage — that no one could have predicted or anticipated, and left life-long students of the political economy like me, well, gob-smacked. Prime Minister Modi took it upon himself to welcome a ‘very special person’ to this “magnificent stadium and gathering”. “A man”, he said, “who needs no introduction, (as) his name is familiar to everyone on the planet. His name comes up in almost every conversation on global politics. His every word is followed by tens of millions”, President Donald Trump. Quite possibly a first for any head of state to be introduced to his own people on his own home soil!
He then, proceeded to introduce President Trump ‘to his family’ that stood before him. The 55,000 strong Indian-American diaspora and Indophiles in the audience, the 4-million plus Indian-Americans across the United States, over a billion Indians at home, and countless viewers who were watching this telecast from around the world. In that very moment, one forgot who was the host, and who, the visitor, and started to understand the potential significance of this meeting, between the leaders of two of the world’s most important economies and largest democracies.
The fact that we stand on the cusp of an election year, was clearly not lost on anyone.
President Trump, on his part, was quick to reciprocate: “Prime Minister Modi and I have come to Houston to celebrate everything that unites America and India: our shared dreams and bright futures. I have also come to express my profound gratitude to the nearly 4 million amazing Indian-Americans all across the country. You enrich our culture, you uphold our values, you uplift our communities. You are proud to be American, and we are truly proud to have you as Americans!”
Yeh dosti, hum nahin todenge: Both Prime Minister Modi and President Trump referred to the fact that we were witnessing history in the making. Were we?
Perhaps yes, and, in many ways. With the two leaders scheduled to meet later this week on the sidelines of UNGA, and against a backdrop of several bilateral ministerial and working group meetings, the atmosphere is pregnant with possibility.
Will the public posturing at the meeting underscore the discussions during the week and lead to the announcement of a new trade agreement? The removal of tariffs at both ends, in a de-escalation in what could otherwise lead to another trade war? The reinstatement of GSP privileges? The relaxation of investment or operating norms in industry segments like agriculture, technology, BFSI and med-tech? A new construct around immigration and work visas? Increased cooperation across other priority areas including defense, geopolitical stability in the Indian subcontinent and the Indo-Pacific region, aviation and space? We will need to wait and see. With so much going on and with so much at stake, the timing and significance of the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event, cannot be understated.
The one place where history has definitely been made is in the impromptu ‘victory lap’ taken by the two gentlemen around the arena — to the apparent consternation of the security services on both sides, and the glee of everyone in the audience. The image of the two smiling gentlemen walking hand in hand, around the stadium as they waved to the crowds will stay emblazoned in the public consciousness for some time to come. After all, as Mr Modi put it, ‘People are at the heart of all relationships!’
Sukanti Ghosh is a senior director at APCO Worldwide and a member of the firm’s global management committee and global health care leadership team.