In early 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team was planning his visit to Washington and first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. On previous U.S. visits, Mr. Modi had addressed massive diaspora events in New York and San Jose, sending out a powerful message about the power of the Indian-American community and of the Indian Prime Minister who was able to bring them together in venues that previously could be filled only by Bollywood stars.
At the time, the team had plans for an event in Houston, in a state with the third largest population of Indian immigrants, and a city with major trade ties to India.
There was only one hiccup in 2017: a worry that the newly elected President Trump may not look warmly at a gathering of tens of thousands of immigrants, particularly in a state where immigration was a major issue, right at the beginning of his term. Furthermore, Mr. Trump did not have a personal relationship with Mr. Modi, and may not have appreciated being in the shadow of a rally of American voters addressed by a foreign leader.
Two years later, the hesitations of that time have been overcome. After a rocky start to their relationship — Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi held only one full-fledged bilateral meeting in 2017 and 2018, trade ties dipped, and Mr. Trump’s mocking of Mr. Modi’s accent on the Harley-Davidson issue went down badly in India — the leaders have more than made up in 2019. In Houston, Mr. Trump is meeting Mr. Modi for the third time in four months, and they will also hold a sit-down in New York next week. The leaders have clearly built a rapport, evident in France a few weeks ago when they clasped hands and Mr. Modi playfully slapped President Trump’s arm.
However, apart from the bonhomie between the two leaders, there are several reasons of realpolitik that are also bringing the two men together on one stage.
To begin with, the U.S. is now well into its campaign season for presidential elections in 2020, and Mr. Trump is locking his sights on both the sizeable and influential Indian-American community, as well as the Texas vote.
The last Senate election there in June was very close between the winning Republican and Democratic candidates, and recent polls show Democratic presidential frontrunner Joseph Biden a few points ahead of Mr. Trump among Texan voters for elections in November 2020.
Despite his direct pitch to voters of Indian origin (“I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India”) during the 2016 campaign, only 16% of Indian-Americans voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.
“This is not as much about the India-U.S. bilateral relationship as it is about domestic politics,” says Daniel Markey, Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
“While Mr. Trump’s foreign policy swings wildly, often switching on a dime, the one constant in his actions is political opportunism,” agrees Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Washington based Stimson Centre.
He added, “He is going to hope Mr. Modi’s popularity with the Indian-American community transfers to him.”
Mr. Trump is not the first to express that hope, and it may come as a surprise that other leaders have not succeeded in effecting that transfer.
Prior to President Trump, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abott, Canadian PM Stephen Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all accompanied Mr. Modi to diaspora events, although it is unclear whether the community vote stacked up for them at subsequent elections that they lost (all except Mr. Netanyahu, whose political fate is still being decided).
Finally, Mr. Trump’s appearance at the NRG stadium can be attributed to his “MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) and KAG (Keeping America Great) slogans for big business and jobs, and a place he can pitch to both voters and big ticket campaign donors. “With a $500 billion GDP, and leading companies in energy, petrochemicals, medicine, aerospace and space technology all headquartered in Houston, the city has a strategic importance for the leaders,” explained Jagdip Ahluwalia of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston.
It is no wonder that since 2017, President Trump has made 11 trips to Texas and five to Houston already, and even less wonder that when the PM discussed the rally with him, he said he would head to Houston to say ‘Howdy, Modi!’ as well.
If he is lucky, PM Modi may even announce a tariff waiver on Harley Davidsons, to sweeten their talks over trade.