India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally of 50,000 Indian immigrant participants at Houston's NRG Stadium on September 22 with President Donald Trump as his "warm-up act."
Howdy Dubbed, Modi! For Modi, the event kicks off a busy week in the US with no less than 40 conferences in attendance. He is scheduled to talk at the UN General Assembly in addition to bilateral discussions with Trump, attend a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, and appear at the UN Climate Action Summit.
Modi will also obtain a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "worldwide goalkeeper" prize for the Swachch Bharat or "Clean India" initiative of his government.
However, it is the Howdy, Modi event that will attract attention, not just because of the praise that Modi and Trump have raised on each other. Few rulers hold such events when traveling, but Modi has a lengthy history of talking to Indian diaspora meetings when traveling abroad.
In 2014, after the landslide election victory that brought his government to power for the first time, he appeared before an 18,000 audience at Madison Square Garden in New York, and then at another meeting, attended by a comparable amount, at the AllPhones Arena in Sydney, Australia's Olympic Park.
A year later, his British counterpart David Cameron joined Modi in front of an estimated 60,000 Indian diaspora participants at London's Wembley Stadium.
Campaign Modi, such as Howdy, Modi is effectively campaign rallies, although organized abroad and involving people who are largely unable to vote in India's elections. They are organized by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi, working with civil society groups in the diaspora, and not primarily by the local embassy or consulate officials. They allow Modi to be seen as positively as possible by viewers back home, fested by an overwhelmingly supportive crowd of people whom ordinary Indians would see as savvy and successful. Such events are thus part of Modi's wider, ongoing effort to consolidate his position as his era's most dominant Indian politician.
However, these events have more to do than just public relations. Indian elections have become colossally expensive in recent years. The candidates spent an estimated $5 billion in 2014.
Some estimate that figure increased to at least US$ 7 billion in 2019. Most of the spending was almost certainly accounted for by Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP. It reportedly had accumulated a considerable war chest before the poll.
A significant proportion of this money came from large corporations and some from ordinary Indian BJP members and supporters.
But a significant amount is likely to have come from the Indian diaspora, despite the fact that many are unable to vote in India either because they are no longer citizens or if they are because they were unable to travel home to cast their ballot, as they must do under current electoral law.
The Delhi High Court found that before the 2014 elections, both the BJP and the opposition Congress Party had accepted foreign donations, including from foreign-based firms.
Since then, both to make it more difficult to trace the sources of campaign funding and to make it easier for foreign individuals and entities to donate money, the Modi government has legislated. Rallies like Howdy, Modi are designed not to appeal for diaspora votes, but to thank past donors and ask for future contributions.
Uniting the immigrant population:
These events also serve as political consolidation instruments. The diaspora of India is as heterogeneous as that of India. And abroad, Indian people and Indian citizens often unite in groups that reflect regional, linguistic, caste, and religious identities, as well as national "Indian" organizations.
These sub-national groups help preserve those identities, but as a political force, they may also weaken the majority population. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to forge India lobbies in places like the US that might influence governments on behalf of New Delhi.
The BJP uses events such as Howdy, Modi to attempt to address this issue as a focal point around which different smaller groups can gather. The Twitter feed from the prime minister made that clear, posting Modi's video meeting with representatives of particular communities like the Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohras, the Kashmiri Pandits, and local Sikhs.
It's also telling that the organizers have managed to attract sponsorship from over six hundred immigrant community groups across the US for Howdy, Modi.