New Delhi: PM Narendra Modi is about to address his biggest-ever overseas rally ‘Howdy, Modi!’ Sunday in the US city of Houston, a Texan metropolis that serves as the hub of NASA’s human spaceflight programme. It is a big oil player, and, on a side note, the birthplace of one of modern music’s most prominent icons, Beyonce.
It is also home to around 1.3 lakh Indian-Americans who have always been a force to be reckoned with in the political and business landscape of the US.
Such is the clout of the community here that several Indian companies such as Mahindra & Mahindra, Reliance, Larsen and Toubro, and Welspun have made Houston the headquarters for some of their operations.
With the objective of tapping into this community and also to enhance business-to-business ties between Texas and Indian states, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to make Houston his first stop as he embarks on his week-long trip to the US.
A model community
Houston is the fourth busiest gateway for trade between the US and India. India is Houston’s 10th largest trading partner among nations, with $4.3 billion in trade a year, growing by 36 per cent annually since 2017.
Three of India’s leading public sector companies have corporate headquarters in Houston — ONGC Videsh Ltd, Oil India Ltd and GAIL Global USA — due to the large pool of educated and skilled Indian-American manpower on offer.
IT bellwethers like Infosys, Wipro, TechMahindra, Tata Consulting Services and Cognizant also have operations in the city.
In 2015, Indians became the second-largest ethnic Asian group in the US, next to the Chinese, according to a report by Pew Research.
Texas, being one of the few areas in the US that is growing rapidly and creating jobs, attracts a substantial proportion of the roughly 65,000–80,000 Indians who go to America on an H-1B visa annually.
Indians are seen as a model immigrant community. Almost all Indians in this area first came to the US on H-1B visas, which are reserved for highly skilled migrants.
Most Indian migrants have advanced or professional degrees and are employed in the hydrocarbons, healthcare, financial services, technology services and advanced manufacturing industries.
An appreciable, and growing, number of Indians hold senior to very senior positions in businesses.
The energy question
While energy is being touted as a new and emerging component in India-US ties, it traces its roots to former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure when he visited Houston in 1994.
At the time, India was seen in considerably poorer light by the Americans for its Kashmir as well as inward-looking economic policies. However, Rao broke the ice with the US, then under president Bill Clinton, during his visit.
Rao was hosted in Houston by then Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, leading to an investment by the energy major in India. However, Enron’s JV with India’s Dabhol Power Co. ended on a bitter note after a huge scandal.
With his visit now, PM Modi is also looking to substantially increase India’s energy imports from the US, which currently stand at $4 billion. Houston is a crucial pivot to this plan.
The volume of oil that Texas produces could cover about 60-70 per cent of India’s oil consumption, according to official statistics by the Ministry of External Affairs. For India, which had to stall oil imports from Iran amid a threat of US sanctions, it is a significant prospect in terms of procuring oil and gas.
Texas has about 30 refineries that process around 50 lakh barrels per day, which constitutes about a third of all US refining capacity. The refineries are part of a massive petrochemical complex located in the US Gulf Coast in the states of Texas and Louisiana.
The ports of Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi are among the largest hydrocarbon terminals in the United States and much of its hydrocarbon and petrochemical exports and imports flow through them. All these factors have also made Houston a major oil trading centre.
In November last year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner visited India with a high-level trade and business delegation.
“We expect that Houston will become a hub for energy exports to India. Virtually, all Houston-based oil majors are expanding their footprint in India,” Turner had stated at the time.
“Companies associated with the oil industry such as oilfield service and technology companies also have growing operations in India,” he added.
Former Indian Ambassador to the US Arun Singh said PM Modi’s visit to Houston “will signal that India is willing to build further on the now robust energy relationship” with the US.
“Houston is a place where there’s a significant Indian-American community. Besides, Texas is the energy capital of the US and energy is a new and growing component of US-India trade,” he added. “It also has the second-largest economy in the US.”
Former Indian ambassador Neelam Deo, who is now the director of Mumbai-based foreign policy thinktank Gateway House, echoed the view.
“Houston is one of the biggest cities in the US, with Texas having an Indian-American community of over 2,00,000. And they are present across all fields, from doctors to oil and gas,” she added.
“Houston could be for energy, as Silicon Valley is for IT. Having already visited other cities such as New York and San Jose (where Silicon Valley is located), it is quite understandable why PM chose Houston for this visit,” she added.
A massive 50,000 Indian-Americans have registered for Modi’s Howdy, Modi! rally, an attendance much larger than his 2014 address at Madison Square Garden in New York (19,000) and a 2015 event at Silicon Valley (18,000).