HOUSTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) – Some 50,000 Indian-Americans are due to pack into a Houston stadium Sunday for a rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, joined by U.S. President Donald Trump, in a rare mass show of support for a foreign leader on U.S. soil.
The event gives Modi, a nationalist facing international criticism over a recent crackdown in disputed Kashmir, a chance to energize his relationship with Indian-Americans who are active political supporters. Trump, meanwhile, will face a largely foreign-born audience that may not prove receptive to his typical strident anti-immigrant messages.
Houston is a rare Democratic stronghold in Republican-dominated Texas and serves as the economic anchor of a state that will be critical to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. Polls show tepid support by Indian-American voters, some 75% of whom voted for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
But organizers of the “Howdy, Modi!” event, due to kick off in the morning with a 90-minute cultural program featuring 400 costumed dancers, say Trump can expect a receptive audience.
“Trump is completely welcomed by the community,” said Preeti Dawra, a spokeswoman for the Texas India Forum that organized the event. “His presence is an indication of his support and endorsement of the strengthening of India’s relations with America. This event is about strengthening those ties.”
It will not be the first time Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has addressed a large crowd in the United States, which is home to about 4 million Indian-Americans including about 300,000 in Houston and nearby Dallas, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.
Some 19,000 people turned out for a similar event in New York in 2014, and Indian-American volunteers living in U.S. suburbs helped run a telephone blitz of voters in India in the runup to his May reelection campaign.
“Modi’s coming here shows the importance of the Indian-American diaspora for him,” Dawra said. “We will show him on Sunday the enthusiasm the diaspora has for his leadership.”
Modi’s visit to Houston comes ahead of this week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York and amid a particularly tense time on the subcontinent.
The Indian leader further strained long-simmering relations with Pakistan last month by revoking the partial autonomy enjoyed by Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both nuclear-armed countries claim. Modi’s move has been met by international criticism.
Pakistan has condemned the crackdown and its Prime Minister Imran Khan warned it would drive more of the world’s Muslims into extremism.
Members of India’s religious minority Sikh and Muslim groups are planning noisy gatherings near the stadium to protest Modi’s Kashmir policy.
The U.S.-India relationship on trade and tariffs is rocky right now, though Trump and Modi appear to have strong personal ties.
But Devesh Kapur, director of Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins University, who has written a book on Indian-Americans, said that while the rally would certainly have symbolic value for both leaders, “it’s unlikely by itself to impact thorny trade issues … but it can’t hurt.”
Kapur also forecast little improvement regarding Trump’s standing with Indian-Americans.
“The Trump administration’s hard line policies on immigration … have hardly endeared (him) to the community,” Kapur said. “Appearing with PM Modi might mildly help but certainly not reverse the community’s overall pro-Democrat leanings.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Houston; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Mumbai; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)