Pak, Kashmir, US polls: Howdy Modi was an event destined to happen

A 'Welcome Modi' Billboard in Houston. Photo: India Houston Website

The first law of India-Pakistan competitive politics dictates for every ‘Howdy Immi’ there has to be an equal (if not greater) and opposite ‘Howdy Modi’.

Playing howdy is, after all, part of our shared legacy that precedes hockey. Years and years ago, when medieval kings and their subjects in the subcontinent competed with each other, there were two accepted ways of asserting supremacy. One was through I-will-annihilate-you kind of wars and the other through building monuments, usually shrines that were bigger, grander and higher than those raised by their rivals. At the core of this competition was one of the most primitive human emotion: envy.

Wars can’t be fought any more (think nukes). Building temples, statuettes and monuments is now more of a domestic thing—the Marathas, for instance, dream of a bigger monument to Shivaji than the Statue of Unity in Gujarat but not of something grander than the Minar-e-Pakistan. And hockey, like cricket, is almost one-sided these days. But supremacies have still to be asserted.

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So, how do India and Pakistan compete, play howdy? By organising huge rallies, in faraway lands, like the US. Voila!

In July this year, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan landed in the US with the de-facto ruler of his country, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, to seek financial and political aid for their country. Before the duo went around with its wishlist, Khan unveiled himself as a motivational speaker in front of a large crowd of Pakistanis gathered at the Capital One Arena in Washington DC. In a theatre packed to the rafters, brimming over with 30,000 people—never mind the official capacity of 20,000—Khan made a rousing speech, made the Pakistanis sing, dance, cry and thump their chests with pride and purpose. When it ended, the emcee announced this was the biggest event featuring an invited foreign leader other than the Pope.

Till a few years ago, it was almost de rigueur for Modi to hold rockstar events for the diaspora. Soon after winning the 2014 elections, he appeared at the Madison Square Garden (New York), at the Allphones Arena (Sydney) and several high-profile venues to address Indians. At these events, Modi made it a habit to extol Indians, give credit to himself for India’s growing international stature and berate the opposition as corrupt and incompetent. Though Khan’s performance was an encore of Modi’s shows, the sight and sound of Pakistanis enjoying, asserting themselves must have rankled.

When the Iranian scholar Al-Biruni visited India at the beginning of the 11th century, he noticed: “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs…” So, it stands to reason, for every ‘Howdy Immi, there had to be a greater and bigger ‘Howdy Modi.’ It was destined, inevitable. And, thus, as expected, it is unfolding on Sunday at Houston, in front of venue packed to the rafters with more than 50,000 Indians, making it, no surprise here, the biggest jamboree in its history featuring an invited foreign leader other than the Pope.

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The US (like UK) has become the new battleground for the two diasporas to jostle for supremacy, assert their identity. Members of the two communities work together, party together, dance at each other’s festivals but at the sub-conscious level still envy each other, want to be identified as the bigger, better, more influential group in their adopted nation.

Most of the people in the US from the sub-continent have done quite well. The median household income of around 4.5 Indians, for instance, is in excess of $100000. But, these communities believe that among Americans they do not get the desired respect because of the image of their native countries, which are still seen as backward, developing and riddled with problems of the third-world. When these communities assert their identity in their Saville-Row suites, in the heart of the US, showcase the might of their countries, it does wonders for their esteem and self-respect.

The leaders of the two countries, of course, benefit from this PR gig. When thousands of people in expensive suites, alligator shoes and Swiss dials, scream and shout “Modi, Modi” (or Imran Khan, Imran Khan), they automatically raise the profile of these leaders in the eyes of the domestic audience through the process of endorsement by the English-speaking elite in first world countries. (Notice that the events are synced with prime time TV leaving no doubt about the intended audience of the razzmatazz).

Modi’s Houston event is being held in the backdrop of the decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status. The international media, especially the press in the US and London, has been brutally critical of the Indian decision and its impact on the life of Kashmiris. Mobilising the Indian diaspora in the US, making it endorse Modi—and by inference his Kashmir policy—was the only way to fight back, counter the evolving anti-India narrative. At Houston, Modi will send a covert message to the US media that he is being hailed as a hero in their own backyard in spite of their strident criticism (and they should shut up).

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It helps India’s cause that the US is on the cusp of its next presidential election. Since the Indian community is not only a large electoral bloc, it also enjoys considerable financial and intellectual heft. In the run up to the election, both the Republicans and Democrats want the diaspora by their side. For this reason, both the parties are sending their representatives to the event. Their support is even more crucial for Donald Trump, who has decided to take advantage of the gathering to burnish his pro-India image, for two reasons. One, Indians are traditionally seen as liberal Democrats. Two, Texas is crucial for his re-election and at the moment it is turning the other way.

This jostling for the attention of the diaspora has initiated intra-party debates around Hinduism and Hindutva, Kashmir and human rights, and the merits of allowing a diaspora to influence an electoral process through such shows of strength. But those voices of dissent can wait. At the moment, the diaspora is keen only to drown the echo of Pakistan’s quami tarana with chants of Howdy Modi.