Energy-rich Texas and energy-hungry India came together in an unprecedented celebration this morning when Prime Minister Narendra Modi stormed the lone-star state. With US President Donald Trump also present and participating actively, it was literally “history in the making,” as Modi put it. With a huge crowd of over 50,000, not just witnessing, but cheering and heralding it. To me, a defining moment in Modi’s speech, though unnoticed by most, is when he asked, slightly wryly, “What happens if you combine energy with chemistry?” He answered, in his own inimitable fashion, “synergy.”
Indeed, the whole event was marked by a series of remarkable synergies. First of all between the organisers, the Texas India Forum (TIF), and the entire Indian diplomatic establishment led by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Working quietly, if tirelessly, behind the scenes were not only foreign secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale and Indian ambassador to the US Harsha Vardhan Shringla, but the much-loved Indian consul general in Houston, Anupam Ray. Greatly contributing to the effort was a band of over 1,400 volunteers, of which some 3,000 were, as their local in-charge told me, from the BAPS Swaminarayan group alone. Many volunteers came from far-flung parts of the US as well as even more distant India. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Sewa International, Hindu American Foundation, and other groups in the US also worked very hard to make the event a huge success.
But, “Howdy, Modi!” was by no means sectarian. The strategically placed supporters in saffron were nicely complemented by a large group of Dawoodi Bohras, in their traditional white and cream clothes, complete with crochet headscarves and skull caps. Not only were they conspicuously present, but actively participating, even when Trump spoke out against “radical Islamic terror”. There were large numbers of Sikhs, Jains, and Indians of other religious faiths and denominations, as were Americans of Indian origin from nearly every state of India.
Catering to, combining, then celebrating this diversity was one of Modi’s triumphs. He asked, “How are things in India?” answering, “Bharat mein sab accha hai.” He then repeated it in many Indian languages, “Sab chang si” (Punjabi), “Baddha majha ma che” (his mother tongue, Gujarati), “Anta bagundi” (Telugu), “Yella channagide” (Kannada), “Ellam sokhiyam” (Tamil), “Sarva chhan chalala ahe” (Marathi), “Sab khub bhalo” (Bangla), and “Sabu bhalla chi” (Odiya).
He drove home the point that in Indian democracy, diversity leads not to division, but strength. This was the kind of cultural and civilisation synergy that India brought not only into its own nation-building, but, through its talented immigrants, to the US itself. Modi emphasised unity in diversity, which not only Jawaharlal Nehru had highlighted in his Discovery of India, but which is enshrined the motto of the US, “e pluribus unum,” Latin for “out of many, one.” The synergy and shared values between the US and India in their respect for and celebration of diversity, in addition to their joint commitment to unity, were thus underscored.
As the entertainment showcased prior to the entrance of Modi and Trump, from Gurbani to Garba, Bharatanatyam to Kathak, Mohiniattam to modern dancers, and Bhangra to Indo-Caribbean rap, Indians in America brought a wealth of cultural riches to their host country, besides enormous talent as doctors, engineers, scientists, executives, authors, and leaders of society in every walk of life. Something that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner openly acknowledged and lauded in his opening remarks. Indeed, a rich variety of senators and Congresspersons were present, both Republican and Democrat, weighing in to demonstrate the range of US political support to India. This bipartisan political synergy was another factor that made the summit memorable.
In addition, the summit motto of “shared dreams, bright futures” reminded the audience of the huge aspirational overlap between the American and Indian dreams. Indians, Modi said, were a patient people, but now they were impatient for growth, development, and prosperity. Trump congratulated Modi on lifting 300 million people out of poverty. Modi hailed Trump as a great fighter against terrorism. Another set of synergies, bringing trade and terrorism on a common Indo-US platform, ensued.
Modi asked the crowd to give a standing ovation to Indian legislators who bid “farewell” to Article 370. He said his party did not have a majority in India’s Upper House (Rajya Sabha), but the constitutional amendment was still passed with two-thirds majority. He also asked for a standing ovation to Trump for the latter’s crusade against global terrorism, thus bringing him on India’s side in its fight against Pakistan. The latter country he did not name, but no one could have been in doubt as to what the epicentre of terror in both 9/11 and 26/11 could be when he asked where the perpetrators were located. The allegedly Pakistan-orchestrated protestors were not only outnumbered but rendered rather ineffectual by Modi’s move. In fact, on the other side of the massive football arena, there were Afghans and Balochis protesting against Pakistan.
Apparently, Modi even made a campaign stump for Trump’s reelection by reinvoking “Ab baar Trump sarkar” of “candidate Trump”. Moreover, he called Trump India’s great friend, just slightly less flattering than the latter’s self-description as “the greatest friend India has known”. Trump spoke money and the benefits accruing from India’s purchase of oil and gas from Texas. Modi’s vision was broader as he pitched for closer and more long-lasting ties between the two countries. “Two years back, President Trump introduced me to his family,” Modi said, pausing for effect; then he said dramatically, “I now wish to introduce President Trump to my family, all of you,” he gestured to the huge crowd of supporters and admirers. Everyone jumped to their feet. He added, “All the 1.3 billion Indians are my family, as well as those Indians all over the world whose heritage is Indian.”
By getting Trump to speak at his rally, Modi pulled off a diplomatic and political coup that is all but unimaginable. The energy, enthusiasm, and excitement of the crowd was certainly incredible, despite the backed up traffic leading to the event and the clogged food lines after, when a smaller group had the privilege of having a very late lunch with the PM. There was music, dancing, and an overwhelming sense of hope and happiness. “Howdy, Modi!” was nothing short of a massive party, a carnival and celebration of both overseas Indians and India coming of age. This is what made its synergy so special.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.