September 19, 2019 / 12:14 PM / a month ago

With Trump by his side, PM Modi set to fire up Houston rally

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) - With U.S. President Donald Trump by his side, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek to fire up thousands of Indian-American supporters at a rally in Texas on Sunday, shrugging off international criticism over a crackdown in disputed Kashmir.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Modi is travelling to the United States to speak at the UN General Assembly, seven weeks after his government revoked the partial autonomy enjoyed by Muslim-majority Kashmir in a move that prompted anger in the region and in neighbouring Pakistan, which also lays claim to it.

Before travelling to the United Nations headquarters in New York, Modi will address a rally at a stadium in Houston that Trump has also agreed to attend.

“The special gesture of President @realDonaldTrump to join us in Houston highlights the strength of the relationship and recognition of the contribution of the Indian community to American society and economy,” Modi said in a Tweet.

Though there have been recent tensions between Washington and New Delhi over trade and tariffs, the two men have shown a warm personal rapport at previous meetings.

About 50,000 people have registered for the “Howdy, Modi” community event, at which Trump will also speak, the biggest crowd that the Indian leader has drawn after a rock-show like rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014.

That was the first big attempt by Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rouse the prosperous Diaspora in the United States - home to 4 million Indian-Americans - and lobby for India’s interests in the way countries such as Israel have done.

Vijay Chauthaiwale, the chief of the BJP’s foreign affairs department, told Reuters from Houston that Trump’s decision to attend the event was a surprise, but testified to the power of the U.S. Indian community as well as the importance Trump attached to bilateral ties, despite recent trade frictions.

“The strategic relationship is stronger,” he said.

Modi’s move to end the special constitutional status of Kashmir, where hundreds of people have been detained, mobile and internet services suspended and public gatherings curbed, has drawn expressions of concern from foreign governments, including the U.S. State Department, which called for restraint.

Pakistan has condemned the crackdown and its Prime Minister Imran Khan, who will also be speaking at the UN, warned it would drive more of the world’s Muslims into extremism.

DIPLOMATIC VICTORY

Modi’s supporters say he has won a diplomatic victory by getting Trump on his side.

“They’ve developed quite a good camaraderie between them, leaders of the two most influential democracies on earth,” said Shalab Kumar, an Indian-American businessman who founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, modelled on the Republican Jewish Coalition, in 2015.

“They’re finally coming together on one stage, that’s great particularly after abrogation (of Kashmir’s special status). This is probably the biggest endorsement of the United States to Modi, that the move was the correct move.”

In a statement confirming Trump’s attendance in Houston, the White House said the president would discuss with Modi ways to deepen the two countries’ energy and trade relationship.

Modi, whose domestic agenda combines a Hindu nationalist platform with pro-business policies, is popular among Indian-Americans, a group that has not traditionally voted homogeneously in U.S. elections.

Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination for the 2020 presidential election include Kamala Harris, whose mother was an Indian-American breast cancer researcher, and Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu Samoan-American.

Trump had briefly raised concern in India when he offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. New Delhi, which has long bristled at third-party involvement, said altering the status of the territory was an internal matter.

It has instead blamed Pakistan for trying to sow trouble there, an allegation Islamabad denies.

The Indian American Muslim Council said it planned protests at the Houston stadium against what it said were Modi’s divisive policies.

Editing by Alex Richardson

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