Twenty four hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the largest Indian diaspora event in the US, Indian community volunteers are inside the NRG stadium in Houston — where Beyonce and Taylor Swift have held concerts and Super-Bowls have been hosted in the past — as they make last-minute preparations. Entry is restricted, and only accredited volunteers are allowed to go inside as Houston police watch over one of the biggest sporting venues in the US.
‘Howdy, Modi!’, reads an electronic board that has been put up outside the stadium, beside a banner painted on its facade that says, “Home of the Texan”. Another reads: “We are Texans”.
#WATCH United States: PM Narendra Modi arrives in Houston, Texas. He has been received by Director, Trade and International Affairs, Christopher Olson and other officials. US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster and Indian Ambassador to the US Harsh Vardhan Shringla also present. pic.twitter.com/3CqvtHkXlk
— ANI (@ANI) September 21, 2019
It has rained over the last few days, and a tropical storm called Imelda had hit Houston, flooding its streets and shutting down the airport on Thursday. But on Friday, the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston was operational and on Saturday morning, the roads are clear, the sky is blue as the sun shines and the stage is set for Sunday’s event that will also be attended by US President Donald Trump.
The event is expected to be attended by over 50,000 people. Modi and Trump will address the audience around 10.30 am local time (9 pm IST) on Sunday. Earlier, the plan was to have the address around noon, which would have been late for the audience in India. Before the public address by the two leaders, there will be a 90-minute cultural event.
Preeti Dawra, CEO of Asian Century Communications and one of the spokespersons for organisers Texas India Forum, sidestepped the question of who will speak first – Modi or Trump? “We’ll leave an element of surprise for you,” she said.
Calling the event “history in the making”, Dawra says over 50,000 people registered in “just three weeks” to attend the event. This is the third time that PM Modi is addressing the Indian diaspora in the US after the event at Madison Square Garden in 2014 and San Jose in 2015, but this time, the scale is larger than the past two events.
Vijay Chauthaiwale, BJP overseas cell chief, who is camping in Houston, told The Sunday Express that while 50,000 Indians have confirmed entry, another 3 to 4,000 are on waitlist. “We will be able to accommodate about 51,000 people,” he said.
Beyond the logistics and the planning, the significance of the event is also in the how the organisers want it to be seen. Although a larger audience had attended the event at the 80,000-seat-capacity Wembley stadium in London in November 2015, which was also attended by then British PM David Cameron, the organisers ensure that they underline the two key takeaways of the Houston event – this is the first time an American President will be attending an event where an Indian PM will address the Indian diaspora; and two, this is the largest gathering of people in the US for a foreign leader, after the Pope.
While Gitesh Desai, who was awarded at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diyas this year for his role during Hurricane Harvey two years ago, says the event has brought the community together and showcased “unity in diversity”, some volunteers expressed the hope that anti-Modi protesters would not be able to find their way to the venue.
A group called the Alliance for Justice and Accountability is planning to hold protests near the NRG stadium on Sunday.
“We don’t expect them to get close, since the area will be sealed off for the US President’s arrival,” a volunteer said. Seating for the event will start at 5 am on Sunday.
Houston, according to Desai, was chosen since it is the hub for energy, space and medicine in the world. “Houston is uniquely positioned since India is aspiring to be a space power. Houston has NASA space centre,” he said.
“Texas accounts for about 10 per cent of India-US trade. About 7 billion dollars worth of US goods and commodities that move between US and India is from Texas,” Dawra added. According to her, India is Houston region’s fourth-largest trading partner – after Brazil, China and Mexico.
Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council (USIBC) and former Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration, said, “President Trump’s decision to meet Prime Minister Modi in Houston demonstrates the depth and importance of US-India ties. We often talk about how that relationship transcends politics, as well as the growing links between India and the US at the state level. There’s no clearer demonstration of this than the bipartisan group of US governors and members of Congress who are attending the event.”
The logistics of the events are somewhat staggering. Dawra reels out the numbers: attendees are from 50 states in the US and some are flying in from overseas. “If you count the flyer miles of the attendees, it will be equivalent to revolving four times around the Earth,” she claims.
They are drawn from 20 countries, and speak 31 languages, and most importantly, she points out, “one-third are under 30”, reflecting the enthusiasm among the youth in the Indian diaspora.
And, at last count, she says, the number of samosas these volunteers for the Howdy Modi event are consuming is “2,063 and counting”.