The five-day spectacle saw desi hearts bloat up with pride, injecting a new sense of crossover nationalism among overseas Indians for their, at times imaginary, homeland, India.
If there is one story more fundamentally American than many of its own homegrown folks and legends, it is, almost certainly, the tale of Narendra Modi, India’s 15th Prime Minister. Officially barred from entering this country for nine years over the 2002 riots in Godhra, Gujarat, Modi was not just welcomed in the USA, but, in fact, he was accorded the rare honor as the presidential guest in the last two days of his five-day visit from Sept. 26-30.
Dubbed a king of political bling and showmanship back in India, how did he manage this turnaround in American soil? And what lay behind all the great shindig which saw Madison Square Garden metamorphose into a rock concert on the evening of Sept. 27, when Modi addressed Indian Americans from the ramparts of mid-Manhattan? The five-day spectacle saw desi hearts bloat up with pride, injecting a new sense of crossover nationalism among overseas Indians for their, at times imaginary, homeland, India.
FROM BAN TO RED CARPET
The visa ban against Modi came into effect in 2005 when, in the wake of protests against the “Butcher of Gujarat” (in India and in a number of U.S. cities) and rising diplomatic pressure and international opinion against the then chief minister of Indian state, the White House decided to bar Modi from the United States. In April 2014, when it became evident that he could very well be the next Prime Minister of India, the thaw started in glacial American heart.
Slighted for long, Modi played hard-to-get for a fleeting while. He took his own time to return President Barack Obama’s call congratulating him for winning the general elections earlier this year. The Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority, effectively ending a three-decade-long coalition era in India. It was a new beginning as an aspirational, big-dreaming, impatient India unequivocally elected Modi to lead the country.
The strange parallels with Obama were hard to miss. In their own ways, both Modi and Obama had broken glass ceilings of caste and race. It was a dream likely possible only in India and America, both former colonies of Great Britain. But the two also could scarcely be more different. Modi, the first Indian PM to be born after 1947 (the year of its Independence) is also its least classically educated one. Obama, on the other hand, is a Harvard University law graduate and easily one of the brightest and most educated American presidents. He’s also a posterboy of a postracial American dream. How would the two connect? What would the personal chemistry be like? Misgivings and hope tugged at millions of desi hearts.
The five-day U.S. visit was the icing on a huge cake of diplomatic bravado that Narendra Modi has been displaying since his first day in office in New Delhi. His took triumphant visits to Nepal, Bhutan and Japan. He literally bought off a flood crisis in June this year when he promised Nepal $1 billion in lieu of phased release of waters in the Kosi River. In Bhutan, he was cheered on by Buddhist admirers. In Japan the foreign policy showman really blossomed. Personal rapport with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe worked like magic as Modi visited historic shrines and returned with a $35 billion investment deal. Always active on social media, Modi tweeted in Japanese from his official account and inked a new chapter of Indo-Japanese bonhomie. Only days later, he hosted the Chinese president Xi Jinping, Abe’s biggest rival, in Ahmedabad and New Delhi. Modi effortlessly danced the tango with top Asian powers, despite being a novice on the international dais. He stamped foreign policy with his own signature style, ridding it of the long, diffident, high brow slant characteristic of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and heralding a new era of an assertive, 21st century India.
From a communal ogre, he had transformed himself into a suave statesman almost overnight when he invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony. His love of showmanship was on full display when leaders of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, attended an inauguration, which had hitherto been a mostly domestic affair.
Even though a thick cloud of hype surrounds almost everything that Narendra Modi does or directs, a lot was at stake. Pinned were the hopes of a rebooted Indo-US strategic relationship, which had become fraught and tired in the past two years, with diplomatic fracas, economic slump and Washington’s own battles in the Middle East. In need of urgent repair, Indo-US ties were left a wounded beast. Even for someone for whom political theater is an integral part of his political arsenal, who has a well-known penchant for the spectacular and can handle high drama like no other, this was a big challenge.
Fresh from the success of India’s super-cheap Mars Orbiter Mission (at $ 75 million, it was less than the budget of the Hollywood space blockbuster Gravity, as Modi often likes to quip), the U.S. visit was intended to be both his biggest litmus test as well as a powerful smokescreen. His party, the BJP, had recently seen its fortunes dip in state assembly and by-elections. In Uttar Pradesh, his party had fanned the same communal sentiments that helped it bag 72 out of 80 parliamentary seats in May this year. Moreover, there were devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir. India was experiencing one of the worst monsoons in years, with drought-like conditions in several states followed by flash-floods in many other, crippling the agricultural sector. The misery could not be glossed over by Modi’s periodic declarations that bordered on the populist –– be it bank accounts for all (Jan Dhan Yojana), or education for every girl, or his nationwide sanitation drive (launched later, on Oct. 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary). A lot hinged on the success of the U.S. visit, since the Indian public, mirroring its American brethren, more often than not, behaves like a mob, easily swayed by a grand charade that brings on its heels the promise of deliverance.
Just before leaving for America, Modi had penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, saying that “red carpet, not red tape” awaits American companies investing in India. Touting the United States as India’s “natural global partner,” Modi positioned New Delhi to achieve a much higher growth rate in the coming years. He and Obama co-authored a joint editorial in the Washington Post, spelling out a common vision for the Indo-US strategic partnership.
The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, paid a courtesy visit. So did the former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Modi met cancer specialist and Nobel laureate Harold Eliot Varmus. The chock-a-block itinerary saw the Indian Prime Minister visiting Ground Zero and paying his respects to the victims of 9/11 as he visited the memorial. Clearly, this was a signal that he understood what an enormous threat terrorism was, to both India and the United States, and a subtle reminder that the alleged masterminds of India’s 9/11, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, still roam free in Pakistan. Modi, as always, relied a lot on symbolism.
STRIKING THE RIGHT CHORD
Like his predecessor, former Indian Prime MInister and a veteran leader of BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Narendra Modi addressed the 69th United Nations General Assembly in Hindi, a language still not among the official tongues mandated in the UN. He spoke about neighbourly cooperation, multilateralism, dialogues with Pakistan, strict approach to counter terrorism, idea of a smart city, his vision of a cleaner India, importance of G platforms in furthering ties and UN peacekeeping, fulfilling the promise of reforming the UN Security Council to allow entry for developing countries like India, and even yoga.
It was a free-wheeling, meandering speech that received a standing ovation not exactly for its outstanding viewpoints, but for the simplicity with which Modi etched out India’s role on the international dais. Observers commented how Modi had Indianized his delivery, kept in mind the three-million Indian Americans, many of whom were waiting for him at Central Park and who would throng Madison Square Garden the next day. Modi also, in broad brushstroke, neutralized Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s insistence on the Kashmir problem. While Sharif sounded bitter, Modi struck a comely chord.
Evidently, sophistication lay in his ability to spell out clearly the convoluted Indian narrative. Owning up to India’s many problems, the challenges of sanitation, water and land pollution, literacy, healthcare, infrastructure, climate of investment, among others, Modi said he was a chai-wallah, a small man, who dared to dream big. Yes, that was the same template he had successfully sold during his year-long election campaign, but he knew it wasn’t past its sell-by date just yet. The rags-to-riches theme, the fairy tale of ultimate success, was exactly what America trades in. Be it a Steve Jobs, or a Satya Nadella, a Barack Obama or a Mark Zuckerberg, the bildungsroman of capitalism and democracy could add to that pantheon, India’s Narendra Modi.
It was obviously a cunning twist to the old theme of India being the cradle of civilization, nursing an ancient continuity, carrying in its womb a golden past that was light years ahead of its European counterparts in both material and cultural riches. But wallowing in the past had become a bad habit of Indians, Modi warned, adding history was not an excuse for the present and future. Perhaps, Modi is the first truly postcolonial Prime Minister of India, whose stakes are in creating the future than in straddling the past. Even though he constantly appropriates histories and legacies, chiefly of freedom struggle stalwarts and leaders of independent India (such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, among others), and frequently attempts to denude the Nehru-Gandhi family of its hallowed lineage, Modi, in effect, offers a glorious future, full of technocratic shindig like bullet trains and smart cities, even as the railways incur losses and cities drown in periodic floods.
But in the theatre of Modimania, lubricated by a well-oiled and technosavvy public relations team, such obfuscations are the rule of the game. The UN speech harped on yoga as a healthcare solution as cancer drugs just doubled in price, and a top government agency was robbed of its powers to control prices of essential and non-essential drugs. Was Modi covertly softening India’s stance on the drug price and patent battle with US-led Big Pharma, while peddling that cultural export yoga, now as ubiquitous in the West as chicken tikka masala or chicken curry?
The Modi rhapsody reached its crescendo at the Madison Square Garden event, where just under 20,000 Indian-Americans threw a party-cum-cultural gala in honor of Modi. Frenzied media contingents from India covered 24x7 what Modi did in the United States, but it was astonishing even for them to hear “Modi, Modi” chants in the streets of Manhattan. White Americans, slightly awed but graciously accepting Modi’s rockstar status among their Indian American brethren, took the traffic snarls in spirit. The Economist noted: “Inside (Madison Square Garden) were over 18,000 Indian-Americans, as prosperous and upstanding a diaspora as you will find from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. They are willing themselves into the kind of obedient hysteria they were meant to have left behind generations ago in the badlands of Asia, along with hunger and snakes.” Evidently, despite the veiled ridicule, there was an overwhelming sense of disbelief at Indian American worship of Narendra Modi.
What transpired on Sept 28 would remain firmly etched in the hearts and minds of three million Indian Americans and the hundreds of millions of Indians who saw the programme live on television. The hashtag #ModiinAmerica trended on Twitter, while his non-resident Indian cheerleaders, dressed in T-shirts with the slogan “Unity, Action, Progress,” clapped as “Jai Ho,” the sound track from the global blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire merged seamlessly with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Bollywood fusion music and dance were performed, and a giant screen perched in the centre beamed Modi’s image, as an artist live-painted a portrait while the musical duo, Kavita Krishnamurti and L Subramaniam, kept the audience in rapture, building up for the big show: Modi’s speech.
That floodlit spot, where badasses of rock such as Mick Jagger had strung their guitars, moulded around Modi like water in a pot. The crowd went hysterical. Here was another tick in the Modi checklist. Madison was Modi-fied, even before he had uttered a word. If somebody knew how to arouse passions and enflame sentiments, it was Modi. He was the James Cameron of politics and he knew it. He took the opportunity to showcase his sanitation drive, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; asked the well-heeled Indian-Americans to not just send home more dollars, but go back and invest. Revisit their homeland oftener. He showered them with gifts: life-long visas, merging of Person of Indian Original (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards, easier customs, even visa-on-arrival. American desis lost it again: they ignore the number of U.S. congressmen and senators, who by now, have comfortably withdrawn into their roles as stage props, lending an American dignity to this stupendously Bollywoodesque gala. If anyone of the American lawmakers had anything to do with opposing Modi during the nine-year-long visa ban, they hid it well, stoically putting up with the show.
What Modi managed to do in Madison Square Garden was really two-fold. One part of it was injecting into Indian Americans a lost love for Mother India, which, until as recently as 10 years ago they had shunned. Prominent politicians like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and even the crime-busting district attorney Preet Bharara, brush their Indian roots under the thicken carpet of all-American identity, perceiving it to be a career threat. Others oscillate between an distant disdain and unwarranted nostalgia, conveniently invoking India culturally, but shunning it politically or entrepreneurially. However, a crossover culture has been slowly making its presence felt, mostly driven by third-generation desis, including artistes and writers, businessmen and teachers, doctors and engineers, who freely float from one country to another answering the calls of their economic destinies. Modi gave this hitherto flimsy, soft bridge the cementing of economic incentives and a political clarion call. Before boarding the plane to Washington, he had ensured he gave the American desis the dream of recreating a new identity, and from a model minority, fashion their financial affluence along the axes of transnational dual-core patriotism, waving the Stars and Spangles with as much ease as the Tricolor.
BONDING WITH BARACK
With Indian Americans conquered, Modi set out to meet the U.S. president. If there’s a true foil to the vernacular cool of the Indian Prime Minister, it undoubtedly is the superlatively educated poise of Barack Obama. The former has a chip in his shoulder: he was after all a man of lower class origin in a country still ridden with caste battles and discrimination. The latter wears his blackness with ease: in fact, the Obamas give every white political dynasty in the United States a run for their symbolic capital, excelling in class, education, style and the quintessential American dream of making it big. They are a family of highly fashionable super achievers: husband, wife, daughters, pet dog. Modi, on the other hand, is single. (He was married once, but he left his wife to follow his dreams in politics.) While the Obamas flaunt marital potency and sexual capital, Modi’s appeal is almost celibate, even though he’s a rage among women of all age brackets.
With two kinds of alpha maleness in contention for the alpha alpha tag, it was expected to be a crackling rendezvous. However, it turned out to be a polite affair. The U.S. First Lady gave it a miss, but the President greeted the Indian PM in traditional Gujarati. “Kem chho?” (Howdy?), Obama asked, breaking the ice. They penned a joint editorial in The Washington Post that was as boring and as official sounding as a government draft, in stark contrast to their sharp oratory and much-lauded rhetorical skills.
As Obama sipped red wine, Modi drank warm water (it was the Navratri fast, and Modi is a practicing Hindu). And somewhere behind the photo-ops, we knew this was going to remain a slightly hesitant connection. A reluctant show of camaraderie compelled by diplomatic and economic contingencies. Trade will dictate ties, as always. Security advisors and foreign secretaries will hold robust meetings. Deals will be signed, but both Modi and Obama will not twinkle in the eyes for each other, even though they wowed the middle classes in the other country, giving them a political godhead in each other.
United Colors of Modi
Narendra Modi was dressed for the occasion wherever he went, but the diverse colors that the Indian prime minister donned on his recent US visit had one unifying theme — to win America.
And win America he did even before he reached Washington for a much awaited summit with President Barack Obama after wowing the Indian diaspora, sharing the stage with top American music stars to reach out to America’s liberal youth and wooing the big business in the Big Apple.
It was a surprise performance from a once provincial leader with little foreign policy experience who came to power just four months ago though with a historic win in Indian elections giving his Bharatiya Janata Party a clear mandate for the first time in 30 years.
Landing in America’s financial capital in a smart casual maroon bandhgala and black pants, he got out of his car in front of his hotel to shake hands with delighted members of the Indian-American community chanting “Modi Modi” as anxious security guys scrambled to keep their charge safe
Then he switched to a more formal bandhgala suit for meetings with the city’s mayor and a Nobel Laureate cancer researcher. That was to be the pattern of Modi’s 100-hour action-packed whirlwind tour laced with symbolism.
Next day wearing his trade mark half sleeve Modi kurta and churidars with a grey shawl thrown on his left shoulder, he paid homage at Ground Zero where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre stood before the 9/11 attack, to show India’s resolve to fight terrorism and solidarity with Americans.
Switching to a formal blue bandhgala suit, Modi then took to the world stage with an address to the UN General Assembly choosing to speak in India’s national language, Hindi.
And instead of mouthing cliché-ridden paeans to non-alignment he gave a call to form a ‘G-all’ in today’s interdependent world. Yet he also chided Pakistan for raking up Kashmir at the UN and offered to engage in a “serious bilateral dialogue,” but “without the shadow of terrorism.”
In the evening, he outlined his vision of a “Clean India” to a 65,000-strong youthful crowd at New York’s Central Park addressing them in an idiom they understood saying, “I salute you” and “May the force be with you” from the evergreen hit Star Wars films.
A capacity crowd of nearly 20,000 star struck Indian-American gave him a rock star like welcome at the Madison Square Garden as he spoke to them in Hindi in his chatty style for over an hour as thousands more heard him on jumbotron screens at Times Square and in homes across the US.
Then packing meetings with two governors, including South Carolina’s Indian-American Nikki Haley, 40 odd lawmakers, 11 CEOs and an address to the Council on Foreign Relations, again in Hindi, Modi headed to Washington.
An Indian American writer suggested that Modi through his fast for the Hindu festival of Navratri and the choice of his apparel was speaking in code his “Hindu nationalist” supporters, while another implied that he was cocking a snook to the American establishment that had denied him a visa for nearly a decade.
Be as it may, the US officialdom from President Barack Obama down also treated Modi no less as they broke the ice over an exclusive dinner at the White House. As they shared common experiences, Obama wondered how Modi kept up such a rigorous schedule on just a diet of warm water and yoga and told him how he himself enjoyed dancing during his 2010 trip to India.
The summit ended with the two leaders giving a new mantra of chalein saath saath — together we go forward.” —Arun Kumar