US president Donald Trump hailed the US-India relationship as “stronger than ever before” as he appeared in a rare double act with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a mass rally of nearly 50,000 Indian-Americans in Texas.
In the event at Houston’s NRG Stadium — which has hosted the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, Mr Trump praised Mr Modi as a “great man and a great leader,” who is “doing an exceptional job for India,” and affirmed deepening US co-operation with India ranging from defence and security co-operation to space.
But even as he sang Mr Modi’s praises, Mr Trump made clear that he would not ease up on pressure on New Delhi to open the Indian market to more US goods, amid intense frustration among the US business community at the barriers to trade, and rising tariffs in India.
Negotiators from the two countries have been scrambling to resolve at least some differences on trade issues before the two leaders meet for formal talks in Washington on Tuesday.
“We are committed to ensuring the Indian people have access to the finest goods in the world — products stamped with the beautiful phrase “Made in the USA,” Mr Trump told the cheering crowd in Houston.
The appearance of the two leaders at an exuberant mass rally — organised by the Indian community in Houston but timed for primetime Sunday night viewing in India — reflects the deepening strategic ties between India and the US, against the backdrop of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
But the slick extravaganza — packed with Indian-Americans from across the US — also reflects the convergence of practical interests between Mr Trump and Mr Modi, and the growing importance of Indian-American voters in US politics.
For Mr Trump, the rally is an opportunity to woo Indian-Americans, including the estimated 350,000 living in Texas, ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Mr Trump — whose organisation is also involved with several real estate projects in Indian cities, also courted Indian-American voters in 2016, when he proclaimed his admiration for India.
“Mr President, you introduced me to your family in 2017; Today I have the honour to introduce you to my family — over a billion Indians and people of Indian heritage around the globe,” Mr Modi told Trump in English, before calling him to the stage.
For his part, Mr Modi has effectively used large-scale rallies with India’s affluent diaspora to burnish his image at home as an international star, who has raised India’s stature in the world. He addressed a euphoric Indian-American rally in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 2014, and a year later, addressed the diaspora in London’s Wembley Stadium, introduced by then prime minister David Cameron.
Broadcast on television for viewers back in India, and replayed in snippets on WhatsApp, these rallies have helped reinforce Mr Modi’s carefully crafted domestic image as a leader who is feted wherever he goes, and who has catapulted India to the top table on the global stage.
Indians expressed a surge of pride as the rally was unfolding.
“My father was born in a slave nation & he lived to see a time when his Prime Minister could command the stage like this in the world’s most powerful country,” Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser in India’s ministry of finance, tweeted in the midst of the event.