Trump, Indian Prime Minister Modi emphasize friendship at Houston event

Texas Tribune News

President Donald Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi participate in the "Howdy Modi" event in Houston on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.
President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi participate in the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

HOUSTON– President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed off their growing friendship Sunday, just miles away from one of the largest Indian American communities in the state.

The leaders of two of the world’s largest democracies addressed thousands at NRG Stadium at an event called Howdy Modi! that featured Indian cultural dances amid drill team routines performed to country music, drawing on the experience of Indian Americans living in Texas.

The pair praised each other extensively during their speeches, including their respective efforts to improve each country’s economy and trade relationships.

“He has left a deep and lasting impact everywhere,” Modi said of Trump, adding later, “He said to me, ‘India has a true friend in the White House.’ Your presence here today is great testimony to that.”

Trump began his speech with his own lavish compliments for Modi.

“Prime Minister Modi is doing a truly exceptional job for India, and all of the Indian people,” Trump said, and later called him “the most loyal friend” of the U.S.

Thousands of Indian and Pakistani Americans call the Houston area home and are the largest Asian ethnic group in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, according to the 2010 census. In Harris County, they make up about 18% of the Asian population at more than 50,000 people.

“You enrich our culture, you uphold our values, you uplift our communities and you are truly proud to be American, and we are proud to have you as Americans,” Trump said. “I want you to know my administration is fighting for you each and every day.”

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke ahead of Trump’s and Modi’s speeches and struck a conspicuously bipartisan tone. Both referenced efforts by both parties in recent decades to strengthen ties with India, including making the country a “major defense partner” just a few years ago.

Cornyn focused on India’s connection to Texas — and, more specifically, to Houston — as a major buyer of the state’s natural gas, while also highlighting the state’s growing Indian American population.

“While that’s far and away our largest export, it’s not the only one,” Cornyn said. “But for as deep as our economic ties are, our cultural ties are stronger. Texas is home to a vibrant Indian diaspora … Indian culture is woven into the fabric of our state.”

Cornyn was one of many Texas politicians who attended the event, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Pete Olsen, R-Sugar Land.

Some news outlets reported that Trump could be using the event to align himself with Modi and subsequently attract Indian Americans voters for 2020. However, the group has typically voted overwhelmingly Democratic – 84% voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

This isn’t the first time Trump has made efforts to reach out to Indian Americans, though. An event hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition in October 2016 drew confusion because of the stiff opposition many Indian Americans had shown to both Trump and his policies, including his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

The controversial pair also drew hundreds of protesters outside of the stadium, many holding signs referencing the crisis in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state. Modi, after winning in a landslide election in May, began to re-exert control over the semi-autonomous territory and is accused of committing human rights abuses. Some of the signs even compared Modi’s to Adolf Hitler.

None of the speakers at Sunday’s event made mention of the crisis, and Trump used his speech to discuss his and Modi’s work to strengthen their nations’ borders and stop illegal immigration.

Just a few days off a visit to some of the newly constructed fencing on the U.S. border with Mexico, Trump attacked unnamed Washington politicians who he said wanted to give health care to people who immigrate to the U.S. illegally over legal citizens.

“We are going to take care of our citizens first,” Trump said. “We are going to take care of our Indian American citizens before illegal immigrants who want to pour into our country.”

The event’s presence in Houston also led to mentions of the recent heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Imelda, which killed five and drenched the region in several feet of rain, not unlike what happened with Hurricane Harvey two years ago.

“The entire American nation is standing by your side,” Trump said. “We love you, we support you and we will be there every step of the way.”

After the event ended, attendees wearing “Howdy, Modi!” shirts shouted at protesters across the street of the stadium, chanting the prime minister’s name as they walked to their cars. The hundred or so protesters were separated from the exiting attendees by fences and barricades.