ASIAN AMERICAN HOTELIERS on Sept. 22 watched with awe and pride as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to them at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Houston hoteliers were instrumental in bringing the prime minister to their city and making international history.
As members of the Texas India Forum and other local groups, the Indian Americans worked for more than two months on the event, called “Howdy, Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures.” In all, more than 1,000 volunteers and 650 Texas-based organizations helped produce the event.
Just two days before, Tropical Storm Imelda paralyzed the greater Houston area, bringing 40 inches of rain which caused widespread flooding. The weather conditions grounded flights at Houston’s airport and closed major highways.
But even the force of Imelda could not deter Modi supporters or event organizers.
Spark of an Idea
Hasu Patel, a Houston hotelier and head of SIMA, a non-profit group that promotes positive relationships among hotel owners and the Houston neighborhoods in which they do business, was involved in the effort to bring Modi to Houston. He explained that Houston’s leaders, including prominent Indian American businessman Ramesh Shah, had been working to bring Modi to the city once they learned he was attending the U.N. summit on Sept. 23.
Actually, he said, the idea was sparked in March 2018, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited India on a trade mission and met the prime minister. During their hour-long conversation, Abbott invited Modi to visit the state.
“The trip was outstanding,” Abbott told the Dallas Morning News, which accompanied him on the tour. “It was remarkable to be able to connect with the Indian community” and to “sit down with the prime minister for an hourlong meeting was an absolute home run.” Abbott said the two discussed several business sectors and how India and Texas could work together to empower the state and India’s economic expansion plans.
Abbott said he would advise Texas business owners to collaborate aggressively with India “because there’s a tremendous opportunity that lies ahead.” Abbott was not able to attend “Howdy, Modi” because was on a trade mission to Vietnam.
Shah is co-founder and the first president of the Gujarati Samaj of Houston. He is friends with Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Indian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C. Shah was one of the Indian American leaders who helped organize Modi’s visit and speech in September 2014 in Madison Square Garden. It was the prime minister’s first trip to the U.S. after his election. Nearly 20,000 people attended the event.
Hasu Patel said at first Ambassador Shringla and others considered Chicago as an event venue for Modi’s recent visit, but Gov. Abbott’s visit, Shah’s influence and Houston’s large Indian American population convinced Modi’s camp to select the Texas city. Ramesh Shah was in Washington, D.C., the day it was decided Modi would visit Houston. “I got a call from Ramesh asking me to find a venue” for the event, Hasu said. “I reserved Minute Maid Stadium, which holds about 30,000, but I was told it’s not large enough. So, I reserved NRG Stadium.” Two months later, a Texas-sized crowd of 52,000 enthusiastically greeted the prime minister as he entered the stadium, escorted by President Donald Trump.
To the bhangra beats of four drummers in saffron turbans, Trump in his dark suit and Modi in a yellow kurta and vest held hands and walked together to ecstatic cheers from the crowd.
Supporters were dressed in a variety of outfits, some wearing saris and dhotis. Others wore “American” clothes, including cowboy hats. They waved Indian and America flags as they chanted “Modi! Modi!” Concession snacks included samosas, naan bread and nachos.
It was the largest mass turnout for a foreign leader visiting the U.S., with the exception of the Pope. The country is home to more than 4 million Indian Americans, including 300,000 in Houston and nearby Dallas, according to Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census data.
Sawan Patel, 27, is Hasu’s son. He manages the family’s five hotels in Houston and San Antonio. Most of Sawan’s time on “Howdy, Modi” was spent behind the scenes helping his father and the advance team. He was aware of being part of Indian and American history. “There were talks about this being an historic event, of it being the largest gathering in the U.S. for a foreign leader. And there were rumblings of Trump visiting. But then I saw it live. I saw Trump and Modi together and heard the roar of the crowd. It was a big breakthrough.”
Younger Indian Americans revere the prime minister out of respect, Sawan said. Respect for first-generation Indian Americans as well as the local consul general who is close to the Houston Indian American community. Modi appeals to Indian Americans of all ages, Sawan said, because he is “an energetic and passionate leader. His charisma attracts fondness from first- and second-generation Indian Americans. We grew up in a close family with parents fascinated by Modi, and it translates to the next generation.”
Mirage Hospitality President and CEO Miraj Patel was an active volunteer for the event, which he called “simply electrifying.”
Patel is AAHOA’s recently elected young professional director for the western division who previously raised money for his fellow Houstonians affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. His partner in Mirage Hotels, Dina Patel, said Howdy Modi was definitely a historic event.
“I loved how Mr. Modi was so proud to introduce his family, the people of India, to the president of the United States,” she said. “The Indian American community is only going to get stronger after this. This event has opened the gates for a lot of opportunities.”
President Trump gave a 30-minute introduction to the prime minister. Trump hailed the Indian-U.S. relationship and called the event “profoundly historic.” He received a standing ovation and was interrupted several times by cheers of approval. Although Indian American voters largely opposed Trump’s 2016 candidacy, many in the business community supported his campaign. Houston is a rare Democratic stronghold in the Republican-dominated Texas. Ketan Inamdar, who works in the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, had an Indian flag painted on one cheek and an American flag on the other.
“Trump is very welcome here today,” said Turner, who had also taken a trade mission to India in 2018. “This event is to build harmony and love. Race, religion and political parties don’t matter today.”
Trump’s presence “is an indication of his support and endorsement of the strengthening of India’s relations with America,” said Preeti Dawra, spokeswoman for the Texas India Forum. “This event is about strengthening those ties.”
Trump spoke to the audience for about 30 minutes before introducing Modi. “We uphold your values, you uplift our communities and you are truly proud to be American, and we are truly proud to have you as Americans,” he said.
Hasu Patel said he was awestruck by the historical moment. When Trump addressed the crowd, Modi sat in the audience and listened; when it was Modi’s turn to speak, the president sat in the same seat and listened. “You could see the respect and support they have for each other.” The speeches were broadcasted in real time in English, Hindi and Spanish.
Hasu said event organizers and the City of Houston were informed about a week in advance that Trump was coming to the event. “It added a whole other layer of security to our planning,” he said. Modi’s Encouragement
The crowd was there to see and hear Modi, who opened his oration in English with “Howdy, my friends.” Though he speaks English, Modi delivered his speech in Hindi. He said, “The energy of NRG bears testimony to the growing synergy of India and the United States of America.” He talked of the importance of unity and diversity. “This diversity of India is the very basis of our vibrant democracy. This is our strength. This is our inspiration. Wherever we go, we take with us the values of diversity and democracy.”
He told the crowd he was “impatient to take the country to new heights” and that “today the buzz word in India is development.” Trump grinned broadly while Modi, who heads India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, heaped praise on him, even invoking the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan as he hailed the state of the U.S. economy and the U.S.-India relationship.
“You can feel the strength and depth of the bonds between our two nations,” Modi said.
Despite the strong personal ties between Trump and Modi and the two nations, the U.S.-India relationship on trade and tariffs is rocky.
Trump has demanded better terms of trade from most of the top commercial partners of the United States and blames previous deals for the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Trump has complained about India’s high tariff rates and its new investment rules on e-commerce that he says limits how companies such as Amazon and Walmart-backed Flipkart can do business in a rapidly growing online market set to reach $200 billion by 2027.
Modi, like Trump, has used tariffs to try to boost investment in manufacturing, a key part of his “Make-In-India” campaign to attract foreign cash and create factory jobs for millions of youth entering the workforce.
Devesh Kapur, director of Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins University, who has written a book on Indian Americans, said while the rally had symbolic value for both leaders, “it’s unlikely by itself to impact thorny trade issues … but it can’t hurt.” He said Trump’s hard line on immigration is troubling to many Indian Americans. In May, the president announced a plan to limit family migration to the U.S. The administration has been promoting a change to the system since Trump’s first year in office.
In 2015, about 60 percent of the country’s newest legal permanent residents were admitted because of family ties, reports the Department of Homeland Security and the Migration Policy Institute. The number has been consistent over the following years. The Trump administration wants to implement a points-based system that would shift the family migration trend to a merit-based program, raising the portion of immigrants who are admitted into the U.S. because of their skills from 12 percent to nearly 60 percent a year.
The president has said a points-based system would attract younger workers with valuable skills, employment prospects and advanced educations.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a previous story with additional text and photos.