No one should be surprised if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House will be seen as a side show of his triumphant return to the United States. His visit to New York was such a superbly scripted and choreographed triumph that it is unlikely to be topped in what appears to be a very distracted Washington.
From the moment Modi set foot in the Big Apple, it was pure theater – high profile photo-ops with who’s who of New York/New Jersey, a vernacular address to the U.N. General Assembly, a solemn visit to the 9/11 Memorial, a cameo at a rock concert in Central Park and, of course, the climactic rousing address at the Madison Square Garden. It was as if the whole visit was orchestrated to inter the past ignominy of U.S. visa denial in the confetti of elite attention and desi adulation.
With as many as 30 engagements packed into three and a half days, Modi took New York by storm with elan. Often changing his colorful attire, reportedly designed by Mumbai-based fashion designer Troy Costa, Modi remained indefatigable despite observing Navaratri fast – he even stood for a couple of hours, in typical American style, shaking hands with all the 600 guests at a dinner hosted by India’s Ambassador to the U.S.
As if to tell anyone who mattered there is a new sheriff in New Delhi, Modi held sessions with a host of influential people in politics and business. He chatted with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and followed up with his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. He had a tête-à-tête with Governors Chris Christie and Nikki Haley and parlayed with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. He topped off his A-list causerie with the newest grandparents in town – Bill and Hillary Clinton.
On the diplomatic front, Modi breezed through bilaterals with leaders of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Having recently consigned India’s relations with Pakistan in the freezer, Modi was not expected to meet with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But few suspected that he’d meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, fresh from his universally denounced pulverizing of the Gaza strip, has few friends in the U.N. compound here. Maybe it was a smart move to cozy up to the Jewish leader at the hour of his need, if not his New Year (Rosh Hashanah). If there were some murmurs in the diplomatic corridors about the timing, they didn’t interfere with the euphoria of the Indian delegation.
Enthrall and Entertain
What distinguished Modi’s visit from those of his many predecessors was the enthusiasm and participation of Indian Americans — nearly 20,000 of them jammed the MSG to see and hear him. Even if it pales before the 200,000 Berliners who thronged to listen to candidate Obama in 2008, Modi’s feat is still a record for a foreign leader on American soil. Feeding off from the adoration of the ebullient crowd in the stadium, not to mention several hundred more who watched a live feed of the speech at the Times Square, Modi employed his immense oratorical skills to enthrall and entertain. With quips and colloquialisms, Modi vowed to repay the debt of their love by building an India of their dreams. It earned him one of the several standing ovations.
Although there was no way to ascertain the detailed composition of the audience, it can be safely estimated to be dominated by Gujaratis – something that was borne out by the burst of applause when Modi announced that the next Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas will be held in Ahmedabad. But there is no denying that Modi supporters are drawn from different regional and linguistic groups, and even religious groups, if one were to include the Bohra Muslims, who were allocated conspicuous space in the auditorium. It’s the optics, stupid.
More diversity, however, was seen among the anti-Modi protesters outside the MSG and at Times Square, even if they were terribly outnumbered. A motley collection of liberals, leftists, Muslims and Sikhs waved placards and carried posters denouncing Modi as a communalist, responsible for the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which more than a 1,000, mostly Muslims, died. Exoneration of Modi by several probes into the riots, including one by the Supreme Court of India, has apparently not convinced these protesters. Considering the passions on both sides, it was a miracle that nothing untoward happened. The only discordant note was struck by a few Modi supporters who assaulted Indian television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who has a reputation of being a critic of Modi. But the hooligans were merely a handful compared to the happy campers in the thousands who were amped-up by feet-thumping Bollywood preshow numbers. And Modi didn’t disappoint them.
Snake and the Mouse
A crowd pleaser that he is, Modi praised Indian-Americans for improving the image of India and Indians with their achievements, particularly in the information technology field. With the consummate skill of a stand-up Modi narrated an anecdote about a Taiwanese man who apparently asked him about Indian snake-charmers. Once we were known to play with snakes, now we are known for playing with mouse, Modi reposted with impeccable timing, alluding to the country’s reputation as the world’s back office. During the nearly 70-minute speech that was frequently interrupted with chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi,” the prime minister promised, among many things, to clean up the Ganges, build a home for every Indian, and a lifetime visa for PIO cardholders. I understand your difficulties relating to visas, he said, snarkily alluding to his own problem with the U.S. visa.
Urging their participation in India’s progress, Modi said, “a government alone cannot achieve development for the whole country, but it can be done if the public were to participate in the development work.” He outlined his ambitious agenda for India, saying that he was elected with a full mandate to do “big things for small people.” He also referenced familiar themes about sanitation and cleanliness and urged Indians to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi by eliminating filth by 2019, which marks Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
But, somewhat mystifyingly he mangled the Mahatma’s first name by calling him Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi, instead of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That was, however, a small slip compared to how he completely ignored senators, congressmen and a governor who were called upon the MSG stage just before Modi made his way up there. Whether it was intended or not, it did seem like a ‘Modicum’ of discourtesy not to at least acknowledge the political heavyweights, including Senators Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, Cory Booker, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Gov. Nikki Haley, who were there to welcome him. In a similar flub, the prime minister also failed to greet the presiding officials before or after his address to the U.N. General Assembly. One only hopes, he keeps a protocol official close at hand when he steps on to the biggest stage in the world – the White House.
Policy or a Catch Phrase?
In his U.N. address, Modi raised some brows by questioning the need for groupings like G-7, G-20, when there is “G-All” right here at the United Nations. It seemed like a catch phrase in search of a policy, considering that India is a member of BRICS, a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and aspires to become a member of the APEC or the Asia Pacific Economic Council. In the otherwise somber address in Hindi, Modi, without naming names, reprimanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan for raising the issue of plebiscite in Kashmir in his address the previous day. He promised to resume talks with Islamabad, but only if they are held without the “shadow of terrorism,” an allusion to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India and elsewhere.
Modi also reiterated India’s demand for permanent membership in the Security Council, by challenging the P5 countries – U.S., Russia, France, Britain and China — to reform the United Nations. He mocked the council in its existing state saying “institutions that reflect the imperatives of 20th century won’t be effective in the 21st.” But the curious part of his address came at the unscripted end when he urged the U.N. to adopt an International Yoga Day and went on to suggest that yoga could “help us deal with climate change.”
Nevertheless, that was not as bizarre as his concluding remark at the Global Citizen Concert in Central Park, which comedian John Oliver hilariously mocked, albeit unfairly, on his popular HBO show. “May the force be with you,” Modi told the 60,000-strong rock fans with a dramatic flourish. But he said it immediately after thanking Hugh Jackman, leaving the impression that it was a reference to the Australian actor of X-Men-fame who had nothing to do with the movie “Star Wars,” from which the line was taken. Perhaps, it was a reminder that when you are on the global stage, even well scripted moments could go awry in a New York minute.