Donald Trump set to meet India PM Modi amid high hopes

US President Donald Trump is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on Monday (June 26).
US President Donald Trump is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on Monday (June 26). PHOTO: REUTERS / ST FILE

JERSEY CITY (NYTIMES) - With Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India set to meet President Donald Trump on Monday (June 26) for the first time, many Indians in communities like this one have had high hopes for the relationship between the two leaders - both of whom swept to power as media-savvy political outsiders pledging to revive their national economies.

In a string of storefronts here in "Little India" that pay tribute to Hindu deities, Yogi Patel, 52, runs the Laxmi Pan Centre, which is named after the goddess of wealth and sells a betel nut breath freshener.

He has lived in the United States for 32 years and is a strong supporter of Trump.

"Trump is doing the right thing. He's doing good for US citizens and America," he said, switching between English and Hindi to explain that he grew up in Gujarat, the state that Modi led as chief minister before the 2014 election.

"And I am from both countries."

But as Trump has tried to crack down on immigration and withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, singling India out as a country that has gained unfairly from the accord, the meeting of the two leaders with nationalist leanings and sizeable social media followings has taken on a more complicated tone for others in the Indian diaspora.

Trump is "a little bit unpredictable," said Vasudev Patel, who voted for Trump and is the secretary of the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party, USA, Modi's party.

"Nobody knows when he will make what comment. And the next day he will say he didn't say that. He's like an Indian politician."

Of the roughly 3 million people of Indian descent in the United States, 65 per cent are Democrats or lean Democratic, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Centre.

But on both sides of the debate, political analysts say last year's election has ignited a wave of political engagement among Indians in the United States, and that is also driving interest in this week's meeting.

"Most immigrants who come are really trying to make a life for themselves and their families. They're really concerned about the mortgage on the house, the papers to get their green card, family back at home," said Devesh Kapur, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of "The Other One Percent: Indians in America."

"This has now become a wake-up call that they cannot stand as aloof," he added.

The diaspora in the United States sees itself as a wealthy and powerful segment of the population, with Indian-born business leaders, including Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Google's Sundar Pichai, rising to prominence in recent years.

The median income of an Indian-American household is US$88,000, well above the US$49,800 average for the United States as a whole, according to the Pew survey.

And 38 per cent of Indian-Americans have advanced degrees, compared with just 10 per cent of the rest of the US population.

"Indian-Americans or Indians here are politically active," said Tanvi Madan, the head of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. "They are in the policy space. They have integrated in a substantial way. You see them on prime-time television shows and in sports."

Both Modi and Trump have made efforts to woo the migrant community.

Weeks before the election last year, Trump visited another Indian community in New Jersey, where he proclaimed that the two countries would be "best friends."

Modi, once barred from the United States on allegations surrounding the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, held a rally for 19,000 people at Madison Square Garden on his first trip to the United States shortly after taking office.

The Indian prime minister's meeting with the diaspora on Sunday in Washington was relatively low key.

Those in the crowd, like Srujal Parikh, the executive vice president at the Federation of Indian Associations, were eager to voice specific concerns before Modi's visit to the White House.

Some are concerned about the relationship between the two countries after Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. Others want the prime minister to address the Trump administration's anti-immigrant comments and its tough stance on visas for skilled workers.

"I myself am an immigrant, so I always think this country is built on immigration," said Parikh, a Democrat. "These are the people that bring the country up or down."

"We must be talking about the immigration issue. We must be talking about how they can make a bridge between the two countries."

Tensions ran particularly high this year when two Indian engineers were shot, one fatally, at a Kansas bar. The white suspect was indicted on federal hate crime charges.

Rai Das, 24, who works at a small Indian restaurant in Little India, talks of feeling scared lately while walking the streets of New York.

"There is some sort of wave going on," said Das, who moved to the United States two years ago to study data analysis. "I don't know why, but people are discriminating." Yet Kiran Sethi, 52, the owner of Reema Jewelers across the street from the restaurant, was so torn by last year's vote that she did not cast a ballot, despite being a Democratic supporter in the past. She believes the new administration will do more to create jobs for her two daughters, who earned college degrees in the United States and are looking for work.

"When I see them sitting at home for six months, I feel their pain," said Sethi, adding that Indian-Americans are a "well respected" part of American society. "Do you know how hard we work? We try our best that our kids go to school and get a good education." This week's meeting could rest mostly on personal rapport. The two men may seem to have a lot in common, but Modi's asceticism stands in stark contrast to Trump's flamboyant style.

Still, both leaders ushered in the meeting by posting on Twitter. As he landed in the United States, Modi tweeted his thanks to the president for his "warm personal welcome," while Trump referred to the Indian leader as a "true friend."

From his pan shop in Little India, Patel remained optimistic.

"Their mindset is the same," he said, batting away concerns as he took an oversize stick of sugar cane to the juicer. "Modi does good for India, and he's thinking of the public there. And Trump is the same here."