Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Houston will be unlike any of the five previous visits that he has made to the United States of America as Prime Minister. This is because Texans — especially Houstonians — take great pride in their much-touted exceptionalism and in being different from the rest of America.
Many years ago, well before Hindutva became the mainstream national political ideology in India, a trade mission from the Greater Houston area went to Mumbai. Before starting their somewhat pioneering — at that time — business efforts in India’s commercial capital, the entire mission travelled more than 100 km by road to Malavli.
There they spent two days attending Vedanta classes, listening to spiritual discourses and meditating for a few hours each day. These top-notch businessmen were sure this exercise would be of benefit to them personally. However, in a typically Texan style, they also wanted to be on a level playing field with their counterparts in Mumbai and to gain a better understanding of India.
No other business mission from anywhere in America has embarked on courting business by investing their time or energy on Hindutva. So, when an Indian Prime Minister, who is popularly referred to in the US as a ‘Hindu nationalist’, goes to America’s energy capital on Sunday, Houston’s business leaders will have a feeling of déjà vu.
Ed Emmett, who led that trade mission to Mumbai, is excited about Modi’s visit to his city this weekend. When he led the delegation, Emmett was the top-most elected official of Harris County, a part of the Greater Houston area. It is one of the fastest growing counties in America.
Emmett's excitement is all the more now because Donald Trump, US President, will join the Prime Minister in a unique gesture. Emmet told me on Monday, as brisk preparations were under way in Houston to felicitate the two leaders, that India has always had a special place in his heart.
Partly, this is because his son Joseph Emmett discovered Hindu spirituality after listening to Swami Parthasarathy, founder of the Vedanta Academy in Malavli, speak at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, where he was a student in the 1990s. The influence of the Swami's spiritual discourse on young Joseph was so strong that he relocated to the picturesque hills of Malavli to be enrolled in the academy to study Vedanta.
Eventually, this gave Houston’s business leaders a connection to Hindutva, howsoever tenuous, which has acquired hugely beneficial political relevance today. Coincidentally perhaps, ‘Sunandaji’, daughter-disciple of Swami Parthasarathy, will be in Houston when Modi reaches the city on Sunday. She is a trustee of the Vedanta Cultural Foundation, which has been given the status of a scientific and industrial research organisation by the Indian Government.
The foundation has many Houstonians among its associates and most of them have been working tirelessly for weeks to make Modi’s visit to Texas memorable. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Houston after Rajiv Gandhi 34 years ago. The senior Emmett, who now teaches at Rice University in Houston, has been visiting India since 1995, even before his son made his foray into Vedanta studies. Ed Emmett frequently tells his city’s business and political leaders that to be successful, they must “engage India in multiple ways that are different from what Americans are normally used to. Understanding the bedrock of Indian philosophy is important to this effort.” In other words, Hindutva.
Modi's previous visits to the US cities have been to New York, Washington and San Jose. All these three metros and their dynamic and prosperous surrounding regions, from which Modi drew his interlocutors, are the fountainheads of American liberalism. These are places where recent events in Jammu and Kashmir or in India’s North-East would create ripples.
Not so in Texas. The state capital of Austin and Houston are two islands of liberalism in the deeply conservative Texas, but even in these two cities, liberal values are pale shadows of what they are in upstate New York or most of California. Most of those who will be protesting on Sunday against Modi’s actions back home are, therefore, being brought to Houston from outside Texas. There are few takers for any anti-India demonstrations within this heavily Republican state.
The religious Right in Texas — indeed, in all American South — and the region’s dominantly right-wing political ideology have no difficulty in identifying with the policies and actions of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The religious Right in the southern states of the US, although Christian and fundamentalist, has a more favourable view of Modi than secular and liberal Americans, whom India has traditionally courted since the time Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister.
The only exception to this pattern was Indira Gandhi, who developed a surprising chemistry with Ronald Reagan. Sadly, before her equations with the 40th US President could find a creative way forward in bilateral relations, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Modi, with Trump standing next to him this weekend, may be said, in many ways, to be picking up the threads of political relations between India and America from where Indira Gandhi left off.
Modi’s visit to Houston could be a turning point if sentiment against his government’s recent actions, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North-East, acquires a steady and greater consolidation among Democrats. As younger Democrats — more so Indian-Americans in that party — move more to the Left as a backlash to Trump’s overall policies and his style of politics, an entire generation of them could be lost to the new India which Modi and his party has fostered since 2014 and will continue to nurture in their next five years in power.
If that happens, India will need an insurance for continued and better relations with America. A visit to Houston is Modi’s ‘Plan B’ to insure productive Indo-US relations in future. Modi could handsomely encash that insurance policy if Trump is re-elected President next year.
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