Thousands, plus Trump, due at Texas rally for India's leader

HOUSTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Some 50,000 Indian-Americans are due to pack into a Houston stadium Sunday for a rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, joined by U.S. President Donald Trump, in a rare mass show of support for a foreign leader on U.S. soil.

The event gives Modi, a nationalist facing international criticism over a recent crackdown in disputed Kashmir, a chance to energize his relationship with Indian-Americans who are active political supporters. Trump, meanwhile, will face a largely foreign-born audience that may not prove receptive to his typical strident anti-immigrant messages.

Houston is a rare Democratic stronghold in Republican-dominated Texas and serves as the economic anchor of a state that will be critical to Trump's 2020 reelection bid. Polls show tepid support by Indian-American voters, some 75% of whom voted for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.

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Floods, mudslides in south India
Commuters move through a flooded road near Srirangapatna in Mandya district, Karnataka state, India, Sunday, Aug.11, 2019. Dozens of people have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced in floods and mudslides following days of torrential rains in southern India. (AP Photo)
A view of the flooded Cauvery river, downstream of Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS) reservoir near Srirangapatna in Mandya district, Karnataka state, India, Sunday, Aug.11, 2019. Dozens of people have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced in floods and mudslides following days of torrential rains in southern India. (AP Photo)
An Indian man pushes his scooter through a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A man pushes his cycle through a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Indian men push a small van through a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A man sits on a bench on a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A car drives past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A car drives past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Indians ride motorbikes past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Pedestrians wade past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Indians use an inflatable boat to move past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
In this Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, photo, Indian army soldiers and volunteers transport flood victims to safer areas in Kodagu dictrict, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Flash floods and mudslides caused by days of torrential rains in the southern Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka have forced hundreds of thousands to move to relief camps. (AP Photo)
An aircraft flies above as eople walk through a flooded street following heavy monsoon rains in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Aug.4, 2019. India's monsoon season runs from June to September. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
Indians use an inflatable boat to move past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. India's monsoon rain runs from June through September. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
A man holding a child walks through a flooded street following heavy monsoon rains in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Aug.4, 2019. India's monsoon season runs from June to September. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
People walk through a flooded street following heavy monsoon rains in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Aug.4, 2019. India's monsoon season runs from June to September. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
People walk through a flooded street following heavy monsoon rains in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Aug.4, 2019. India's monsoon season runs from June to September. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
Children hold hands and wade through a flooded street in Mumbai, India, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Heavy rainfall in India's commercial capital disrupted normal life, prompting authorities to close schools and colleges Saturday. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
A Kashmiri man jumps to cross a flooded street after heavy rainfall in Srinagar Indian controlled Kashmir, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Officials in Indian portion of Kashmir suspended annual Amarnath Yatra, or pilgrimage till August 4 in view of inclement weather forecast. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)
A rescue helicopter hovers over a train that was marooned in floodwaters in Badlapur, India Saturday, July 27, 2019. Rescuers in India on Saturday safely evacuated all 700 passengers from a train after it got stuck in monsoon floodwaters between two stations near Mumbai, the country's home minister said. A statement by India's disaster management office in Maharashtra state said the Mahalaxmi Express train got stuck due to flooding of the tracks. (AP Photo/Mahesh More)
People wade through a flooded street in Badlapur, India, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Rescuers in India on Saturday safely evacuated all 700 passengers from a train after it got stuck in monsoon floodwaters between two stations near Mumbai, the country's home minister said. A statement by India's disaster management office in Maharashtra state said the Mahalaxmi Express train got stuck due to flooding of the tracks. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
This handout photo provided by the Indian Navy shows the Mahalaxmi Express train marooned in floodwaters in Badlapur, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Rescuers in India have evacuated more than 500 passengers from the train after it got stuck in floodwaters triggered by heavy rains between two stations near Mumbai. (Indian Navy via AP)
In this Friday, July 19, 2019 photo, Imrana Khatoon, left, rides a boat to get to a hospital, as a woman sits beside her holding Khatoon's newborn baby, in flood-affected Gagalmari, east of Gauhati, India. Khatoon, 20, delivered her first baby on a boat in floodwaters early Friday while on her way to a hospital, locals said. The woman and the newborn were brought back to their home without getting to hospital. They were however moved to a hospital on a boat to the nearby Jhargaon town because of unhygienic conditions due to floodwaters, Community health worker Parag Jyoti Das said. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Asiatic wild buffalos stand in floodwaters in Pobitora wildlife sanctuary, east of Gauhati, India, Friday, July 19, 2019. The sanctuary has the highest density of the one-horned Rhinoceros in the world. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
A one-horned rhinoceros walks in floodwaters in Pobitora wildlife sanctuary, east of Gauhati, India, Friday, July 19, 2019. The sanctuary has the highest density of the one-horned Rhinoceros in the world. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
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But organizers of the "Howdy, Modi!" event, due to kick off in the morning with a 90-minute cultural program featuring 400 costumed dancers, say Trump can expect a receptive audience.

"Trump is completely welcomed by the community," said Preeti Dawra, a spokeswoman for the Texas India Forum that organized the event. "His presence is an indication of his support and endorsement of the strengthening of India's relations with America. This event is about strengthening those ties."

It will not be the first time Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has addressed a large crowd in the United States, which is home to about 4 million Indian-Americans including about 300,000 in Houston and nearby Dallas, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.

Some 19,000 people turned out for a similar event in New York in 2014, and Indian-American volunteers living in U.S. suburbs helped run a telephone blitz of voters in India in the runup to his May reelection campaign.

"Modi's coming here shows the importance of the Indian-American diaspora for him," Dawra said. "We will show him on Sunday the enthusiasm the diaspora has for his leadership."

 

KASHMIR CRACKDOWN

Modi's visit to Houston comes ahead of this week's U.N. General Assembly in New York and amid a particularly tense time on the subcontinent.

The Indian leader further strained long-simmering relations with Pakistan last month by revoking the partial autonomy enjoyed by Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both nuclear-armed countries claim. Modi's move has been met by international criticism.

Pakistan has condemned the crackdown and its Prime Minister Imran Khan warned it would drive more of the world's Muslims into extremism.

Members of India's religious minority Sikh and Muslim groups are planning noisy gatherings near the stadium to protest Modi's Kashmir policy.

The U.S.-India relationship on trade and tariffs is rocky right now, though Trump and Modi appear to have strong personal ties.

But Devesh Kapur, director of Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins University, who has written a book on Indian-Americans, said that while the rally would certainly have symbolic value for both leaders, "it's unlikely by itself to impact thorny trade issues ... but it can't hurt."

Kapur also forecast little improvement regarding Trump's standing with Indian-Americans.

"The Trump administration's hard line policies on immigration ... have hardly endeared (him) to the community," Kapur said. "Appearing with PM Modi might mildly help but certainly not reverse the community's overall pro-Democrat leanings."

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Houston; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Mumbai; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

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