WASHINGTON, D.C.—With the White House putting its official imprimatur on the buzz that President Donald Trump would join Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the mega "Howdy, Modi!" diaspora event in Houston on Sept.22, India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that this was “icing on the cake” to the already “overflowing excitement and enthusiasm that is electric,” and this “huge and unprecedented” history-making gesture by Trump is an unambiguous and unequivocal endorsement of the India-U.S. strategic partnership.
In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, Shringla said, “This is the first time that a U.S. President and an Indian Prime Minister will be addressing an audience together –outside of Washington, D.C. or New York, or anywhere else for that matter.”
He said, “It will be the largest event to welcome a head of government ever in the history of the United States of America and will address the largest ever gathering,” of over 50,000 Indian Americans expected from across the country at the "Howdy, Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures" event to be held at the sprawling NRG Stadium in this Texas city.
Shringla said that besides a massive boost to the India-U.S. relationship and “a recognition of the deep and special relationship between the United States and India - a relationship which has frequently been described as the ‘defining partnership’ of the 21st century,” Trump’s acceptance of the invitation to join Modi at the event was also “a huge endorsement for the efforts and success of the three million strong Indian American diaspora and their contributions in all walks of life in the United States.”
Prime Minister Modi tweeted, “"A special gesture by @POTUS, signifying the special friendship between India and USA...highlights the strength of the relationship and recognition of the contribution of the Indian community to American society and economy.”
An obviously elated Shringla declared that this announcement was yet another tangible manifestation of the “celebration of our shared values of democracy, liberty, and rules based world order when leaders of the world’s largest democracy and the world’s most powerful democracy come together.”
“It Underlines the warmth between the two great nations but also the personal warmth and respect between the two leaders,” he added, and argued that “it’s the fact that Prime Minister Modi has been able to transcend the political divide in the United States of America, and has a great working relationship with both (former president Barack) Obama and Trump.”
Shringla, who disclosed that House Majority Leader, Democrat Steny Hoyer, who would be among scores of a bipartisan group U.S. Senators and Representatives attending the event, with also some governors and several elected officials, claimed that “other leaders around the world have not been able to make this transition as well as Prime Minister Modi has.”
Asked how it all came about, Shringla said, “This was discussed by Prime Minister Modi and President Trump in Biarritz, France as I told you when they met (last month on the sidelines of the G-7 summit) and at that time Prime Minister Modi said, ‘I am coming to the U.S., I am going to Houston and the (Indian American) community has invited me,’ and President Trump expressed interest and so, it went up from there and they invited him.”
Administration officials said that Trump, who enjoys a great chemistry with Modi and has often called him “my true friend” had "immediately accepted" the invitation to join Modi in Houston and directed his officials and Secret Service to make all of the required arrangements in concert with the Indian authorities and the community leadership organizing the event.
And, in less than a year, Modi and Trump would be meeting for the third time— both leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in June in Japan and then in France in August on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit.
But this will be the first-time ever that Modi and Trump — or any Indian and American leader -- would be together addressing an exclusively Indian American event.
Besides Trump and Modi, the only other speaker would be Hoyer, Shringla said, but both Texas’s U.S. Senators, Republicans John Cornyn—the founder and GOP c0-chair of the Senate India Caucus and Ted Cruz, were on tap to attend, as were U.S. Reps. from Texas Pete Olson; Sheila Jackson Lee (who chairs the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistani Americans but is also an active member of the India Caucus), Sylvia Garcia and Texas Governor Greg Abbot.
Also expected to take the stage in Houston were Reps. Eliot Engel(D.-N.Y.) and Brad Sherman(D.-Calif.), the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific respectively.
Three-term Indian American U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.), and two-term Rep.Raja Krishnamurthi(D.-Ill.), have also accepted the invitation to attend, but it was unlikely that the other two Indian American members of the ‘Samosa Caucus’ in the House, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D.Wash.) and Ro Khanna (D.-Calif.) — who have both been critical of the Modi’s government’s recent actions in Kashmir and Hindutva respectively, would be at the event.
Shringla also confirmed rumors that U.S. Rep.Tulsi Gabbard (D.Hawaii) — the first-ever Hindu American elected to the U.S. Congress and a close friend and supporter of Modi, who is a Democratic presidential candidate — would not be able to attend because of a previously scheduled fundraising event on behalf of her campaign.
“She has a fundraiser exactly coinciding with this (event), which was scheduled much before and she can’t avoid that,” he said. ‘Otherwise, she’s a strong supporter of India-U.S. relations and a close friend and staunch supporter of Prime Minister.”
Another close friend and admirer of Modi, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), who had been a conspicuous presence at Modi’s last major public address in Silicon Valley in 2015 in San Jose, California, had also sent in her regrets to the invitation, saying while she would have loved to have been there in Houston for the event, she too was committed to a previously scheduled family get-together.
In the interview, Shringla, who was in Houston on Sept.13-14, with the members of the Texas India Forum, which is organizing the event and with other community leaders, discussing the coordination and other logistics, etc., said that “everything is going very well and the arrangements are coming up very nicely and every person I’ve met, including at the Jaipur Literature Festival inauguration – where I met a large number of people — they were all talking about the buzz.”
“There’s a great sense of excitement in Houston and it’s almost overtaking the city,” he added, and also said that “I went to the Houston Chronicle and even the editors told me that there’s a huge sense of expectation and even the media community is all set to cover the event and look at what it means.”
Shringla acknowledged that he was “hands-on” in overseeing the event and he would be getting back to Houston once again before the Prime Minister’s arrival and then be on hand when the Prime Minister and his entourage arrives along with the top leadership of the community and the city to welcome him.
“I believe in a hands-on approach. I am not a person who sits back and takes credit. I want to be there on the ground to see every detail,” he said. “The idea being is to review the arrangements with our colleagues –the organizers, the Texas India Forum, and other stake-holders, partners, and also try to get a sense from the community, who are actually going to be the people who are going to be present and will constitute the bulk of the audience on that day—try to get a sense from them as to how they see it.”
Shringla acknowledging how it was “quite amazing” how more than 50,000 has already registered and there was also a long wait-list, when asked why makes Modi such a phenomenon that the Houston event could very well be the biggest ever crowd he has ever addressed in the Indian diaspora, said, “The Prime Minister is an exceptional orator.”
“The fact that he is able to mesmerize audiences of all kinds — young, old, affluent, disadvantaged, every section of the population — and he can relate to what he says. And, of course, he has a vision—he has a vision that he shares with people. He says that over the ‘Mann Ki Baat’—his monthly radio engagement.”
Shringla added, “He shares it over gatherings, he shares it over occasions like the Red Fort Independence Day. So, this vision is something that people look forward to and people understand—that this is where the country is going.”
“So, I think it is a once in a lifetime chance to many of the people who live in the area to come and listen for the first time to Prime Minister Modi—to listen to his view, not only of India-U.S. relations, but the way India is going, how India is developing, how we see our…let’s say our role regionally and globally, and of course, the partnership that we are looking to forge, the very strong bonds of cooperation, friendship, and partnership with the United States.”
Shringla argued that he believed “this is something people really want to come and listen to and you have people coming from far and wide. Of course, you have the bulk of the people will be from Texas, but people will be coming from California, from Florida, even from as far as Chicago and Washington state.”
He said that forty-eight states have registered, and noted, “that means 48 of the 50 states have people who are bringing in groups. We are not talking about individuals but large groups who are coming in.”
Shringla said, “Yes, we expect it to be the largest event of its kind,” and attract more people than any diaspora gathering Modi has addressed, completely surpassing the over 20,000 people he attracted in Madison Square Garden in New York and then in Silicon Valley, although both of those centers were filled to capacity.
Besides this main event, the envoy said that Modi would also participate in a CEO’s Roundtable on Energy in Houston, and the discussion would center “on different areas of trade and investment,” considering the massive amounts of oil and gas India has been importing from the U.S. in recent years.
Asked if a trade deal is in the offing, Shringla said, “We hope to have a number of announcements, so let’s see. It’s an ongoing thing and there is so much happening and some of that would be visible during the visit.”