Updated: September 20, 2019 7:10:02 am
What began as 25 letters sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June, inviting him to Houston during his US visit, has now become a mega event, with $2.4 million collected by prominent Indian-American business leaders from 40 major donors and hundreds of smaller donors to host him at “Howdy, Modi!” on Sunday.
In June, some of the city’s Indian-American professionals heard that Modi would be coming to New York in September for the UN General Assembly meeting. Later that month, they learnt that along with their home, two other cities were in the running — Chicago and Boston — to host him. The India-US negotiations over Iranian oil sanctions had just peaked, and Houston, with 150,000 Indian-Americans, found its main selling point.
“Houston has a very vibrant Indian diaspora and it’s a big energy capital. Energy security is a top priority of India,” BJP’s foreign affairs head Vijay Chauthaiwale said from Houston.
“India needs energy, and Houston has lots of energy. There could be a strategic partnership,” said Jugal Malani, chair of the Texas India Forum. Malani said the Forum was created in July specifically for organising the Modi rally, because they “didn’t want to be associated with any other existing organisation”. “None of us have experience of putting together an event like this,” he said.
Along with a main committee of six members, there are 20 working committees, adding up to roughly 200 people. And then there is an army of volunteers.
From the owner of a company that surveys oil fields, to the founder of Chinmaya Mission in Houston, a Congress lobbyist, a county judge — the drivers of the two-month long preparation are focussed on boosting India-US trade relations. Several of the prominent donors and organisers are wealthy business owners of oil, gas and energy companies, as well as corporate donors like Walmart and OYO USA.
After moving to the US in 1981 to work for his brother-in-law’s small business, Malani began his own industrial products company 17 years later. For the last two decades, he has been the CEO of the Unique Industrial Product Company, supplying metal products domestically and globally.
“Houston is the energy capital of the world, and India consumes 10% of the world’s energy,” Forum spokesperson Gitesh Desai said. “It has an interest to go to Houston and talk to the energy leaders.”
In 2008, Desai was the president of the Indo-American Political Action Committee, a lobbying group that has contributed almost equally to Democrats and Republicans, according to online records. It lobbied for the India-US nuclear deal as well as auditing of US aid to Pakistan, said Desai, who received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2019.
Besides Malani, funding came from Swatantra Jain, who serves as senior vice president and director of petrochemical company Vinmar International and director-at-large of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston alongside Malani.
Another significant donor, Amit Bhandari, founded the conglomerate BioUrja Group, which includes an energy commodities trading company, a grain and animal feed supply company, and an oil supplies distributor.
The Forum capped corporate donations at $100,000 and no single entity funded over 10-15% of the entire donation pool, Malani said. The top eight donors contributed roughly 30% of the total $2.4 million.
The organisers were surprised by the growth of the event. Their initial budget of $1.2 million doubled, and plans for 10,000 people grew to 50,000 — of which 8,000 will be coming from outside Texas, including Alaska.
“Next thing we know, President Donald Trump is also coming. That was a feather in our cap, putting us in a different category altogether,” Malani said. “I am not really a political person; I have contributed to both sides of the coin. We are taking this as the President of America coming to the event, not a political leader. He’s coming for the US-India relationship, not for his own political gain. I don’t think his intent is to use this as a political front,” he said.
Protesters have already challenged the claims of an apolitical event. On September 14, trucks and trailers sporting protest signs drove from Houston’s Sikh National Center to the NRG Center, where the event is set to take place. The protest organisers — Sikhs of Justice, Friends of Kashmir, and International Humanitarian Foundation of Houston — plan to stage a “Go Back Modi” rally in a designated area near the NRG Center.
“Most Indian-Americans are Democrats, so Trump is seeing this as a big opportunity to get the votes of the Democrats, to get into the Indian-American community,” Sikhs for Justice legal adviser Gurpatwant Singh Pannun said. “The Houston community says Modi is pro-business. I can give you the figures, that $4.5 billion American investment has been taken away from India.”
Almost two-thirds of Indian-American voters are registered as Democrats, and 84% of the community voted for Clinton in 2016, according to Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund.
“There is no concern with (the protest),” registration committee member Ashok Danda said. “They can do their job and we can do our job. In Texas, there are always protests. We just have to be civil, that’s all I care about,” said Danda, who spent 18 years at an oilfield services company called Schlumberger.
The Forum’s patron committee includes Chancellor and President of University of Houston Renu Khator, Acharya of Chinmaya Mission Gaurang Nanavaty, businessman Ramesh Bhutada, Fortbend County judge K P George, Gurdwara committee member Paul Lekhari, Bohra community leader Abhizer Tayab, and Stafford City elected official Ken Mathews.
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