New Jersey: This was a Donald Trump rally like no other.
On the same day that the Republican presidential nominee told a mostly white crowd in Maine that he would unite the United States under “one God”, he appeared in front of a crowd of thousands of people of Indian extraction, and lit a Hindu ceremonial candle.
“I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India,” he said, to loud cheers from a crowd comprised of many American citizens, but also many, who are at various stages along the path to citizenship, or just visiting from India.
The rally, in Edison, New Jersey, was organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition, whose founder, Shalabh Kumar, is one of Trump’s biggest fund-raisers. Trump repaid Kumar’s generosity with a remarkably warm speech toward Hindus and India, in which he said the two nations would be “best friends.”
“There won’t be any relationship more important to us,” said Trump.
At the end of a week in which Trump faced a seemingly ever-growing number of sexual assault allegations, the rally in New Jersey provided a welcome diversion. The nominee stuck entirely to praise for India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well as his standard policy positions, which he read from a teleprompter.
In a statement days before the rally, Kumar defended Trump against the allegations, saying “The Hindu and Indian people do not abandon their friends in times of crisis. With India and Pakistan on the brink of war, and lives at stake in the global war on terror, Mr. Trump is the president we need at this time.”
Hindu supporters of Trump at the event said they find common ground with the candidate on his perceived toughness against “radical Islamic terror,” as well as promises of low taxes. On the other hand, Trump has often said he would curtail immigration to the US, which seemed at odds in a room filled with immigrants and those hoping to become Americans. The organisers printed hundreds of signs for attendees to hold, including many that said “Trump for faster green cards.”
More than half of the two-dozen-odd attendees interviewed for this article were not (yet) American citizens. And while the smattering of white people in the audience wore Trump campaign paraphernalia, much of the rest of the crowd donned sequinned and starched Indian attire.
Many who were present said they were not aware that the event was meant to have any political overtones. For more than two hours before Trump’s speech, the convention centre where the rally took place witnessed a celebration of Bollywood culture, much of which took place in Indian languages. That cinematic masala, or verve, is what many said made the event alluring — not Trump.
“I am here to see Prabhudeva,” said Kashyap Patel, 29, who is a green card holder working for a pharmaceuticals company in Piscataway, New Jersey. Prabhudeva is a major celebrity, known for his intricate dancing style. “I think most people came for entertainment purposes. My focus is to see Prabhudeva and then leave.”
That Prabhudeva and other household-name Indian stars would effectively introduce Trump came as a surprise to many on Indian social media, as well as to many in the Indian-American community, which leans overwhelmingly Democratic. Roughly 70 per cent plan to vote for Hillary Clinton compared with 7 per cent for Trump, according to most recent polls.
But Trump won major applause for comparisons between himself and Modi, who he called a “great man”, as well as his condemnation of Daesh, which included a jab at Clinton.
“We will stand shoulder to shoulder with India in sharing intelligence and keeping our people safe mutually,” he said. “This is so important in the age of ISIS [Daesh], the barbaric threat Hillary Clinton has unleashed on the entire world.”
The national security messaging made its way into part of the Bollywood routine, too. One onstage skit featured two dancing couples who were abruptly interrupted by robed, bearded men with fake machine guns masquerading as terrorists. Only after they carried out a mock execution, did men and women dressed as police officials come on stage and “shoot” them. Then the police officials and couples danced a number before transitioning into the American national anthem. The event itself was billed as a charity event for Hindu victims of terror in both Kashmir and West Bengal, Indian states that have seen major incidents of communal violence.