Dispatch

The Modi Show

Watching the Indian prime minister's Madison Square Garden speech to a fawning diaspora. 

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK In the 90-minute variety show that preceded the new Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s entrance to his speech at Madison Square Garden — several Indian dance numbers, songs, a video lauding the Indian-American experience — the crowd of roughly 18,000 Indians and Indian-Americans would occasionally erupt in cheers: "Mo-Di! Mo-Di!" And when he finally glided to a platform at the center of Madison Square Garden — only 16 minutes late — wearing an orange vest and understated yellow tunic, his hands clasped in a "Namaste," there was rapturous applause from the audience, some of whom had traveled all the way from India just to see him.

But it was only halfway through the speech that the applause became deafening. "Sometimes people ask me, ‘Modi-ji, tell us a big vision, a big vision,’" he said, using the third person that is a trademark of his oratory. The crowd laughed expectantly. "And I tell them, my friends, I came here selling tea." The crowd roared. "I’m small," he added, "and that is why I will have the intention to do big things."

Modi’s rise — from a tea seller to party organizer, from chief minister of the state of Gujarat to arguably the most charismatic chief executive India has seen since the 1980s — has depended on his ability to manage and surpass expectations. And his Madison Square Garden spectacle, organized by and dedicated to the roughly three-million-strong Indian-American population, highlighted a central tension of Modi’s ambitions: how to make India great without overselling and underperforming.

In his roughly 45-minute speech, Modi wavered between explaining realistic policy plans and making pronouncements whose grandiosity guarantees their failure. He spoke about the importance of cleaning up India’s longest river, the Ganges; improving sanitation; and exporting Indian teachers and nurses to the world. He also criticized previous governments’ pride in enacting laws that add Byzantine complexity to doing business in India, and spoke of his desire to "destroy all" of the old laws. "I can say with a lot of conviction," he said bombastically, "that during this turn the government will be 100 percent successful in fulfilling all of its promises and expectations." A promotional video before Modi’s speech claimed "India witnessed a century of change" in his first hundred days in office.

"One has to manage expectations," Farooq Kathwari, the Indian-American CEO of the furniture retailer Ethan Allen, said in an interview several days before the event. "Deliver more, promise less."

Modi’s timing was impeccable, his cadence strong, his enthusiasm contagious. "He’s a great orator," Ashish Nachane, a software engineer living in New Jersey, said before the event when asked why he decided to attend. Even listening in a foreign language — Modi spoke in Hindi, with simultaneous translation scrolled across a giant screen — one could feel the charisma of his words.

"I have a dream," Modi boomed, "that in 2022, when India celebrates 75 years of independence, there should not be a single family in our country who does not have their own house to live in." That will be just a dream — the 2011 census found that India had nearly 80 million homeless people — and yet the crowd seemed to believe Modi could do whatever he said.

But if Modi’s performance was polished, some aspects of the variety show that preceded him felt amateurish and provincial. During one of the Indian dance numbers, Bruce Springsteen’s "Born In the USA" came onto the speakers, eliciting laughter among the assembled press corps. (Many of the attendees came from nearby New Jersey. The 2010 U.S. census shows that 3.32 percent of its population was Indian-American, the highest of any state in the United States.) At the end of the event, organizers distributed a hefty magazine entitled "Painting a New India: PM Shjri Narendra Modi USA Visit." On the cover was a map of India populated almost entirely by 12 different photographs of Modi. On the back was an advertisement congratulating Piyush J. Patel, a "seasoned entrepreneur who has built a multi-million dollar empire that spans the globe," for the soon to be launched "Amul milk products" with a design that resembled a high-school theater playbill.

Everyone, it seemed wanted a part of the Modi spectacular. Outside Madison Square Garden in the  morning before the rally, thousands of people milled about, waiting to enter. "Absolute chaos," one journalist mumbled. "India plans things atrociously," said Anoop Kansupada, a 28-year-old Indian-American fashion entrepreneur. But once the event began, it moved quickly; everyone seemed anxious for Modi’s arrival, and keen not to upstage him. Dozens of elected U.S. officials attended, included New York Senator Chuck Schumer, but none of them spoke — they stood on stage for the singing of the two countries national anthems, and then they gracefully receded. (The announcement that Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana, was unable to attend provoked the only boos of the entire event.)

A promotional film displayed on the arena’s enormous TV screen before Modi strode onstage broadcast timelapse images of India’s development, set to techno music. It showed (in order of appearance) independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, two-time prime minister Indira Gandhi, and Vivekananda, a 19th-century monk who helped introduce Hinduism to the United States. And then — surprise, surprise — Modi. (Modi’s upright but feckless predecessor Manmohan Singh was missing.)

"I’m very grateful to all of you. You have given me a lot of love," Modi said near the end of his speech. "I have been watching for the last 15 years; this kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever."

This ego and magnetism is part of what makes Modi so popular. "To most Indians, the heady days of towering, heroic leaders has given way to inconsequential minnows nibbling and hoarding scraps," wrote Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, in the promotional magazine. "So if the Modi moment is prone to hyperbole and tired metaphors, it is because the moment is ripe with emotions not ascribed to a political leader in over 60 years."

But there’s also the concern among some that Modi might use his considerable demagogic powers for ill. The writer and historian of India, William Dalrymple, said that he worried Modi will become "a kind of Indian Putin" adding that his record in Gujarat — where he cracked down on dissent and centralized power "is of an authoritarian leader." The biggest black mark on his record is his inaction (willful or otherwise) during 2002 riots, which saw Hindus murder hundreds of Muslims. Outside Madison Square Garden, 73-year-old Muslim man Moizi Dhrolia, said he had come all the way from his home state of Gujarat to see Modi. "We suffered a lot being Muslim," he said, recalling the experience of 2002. "But now we forget everything." He added, as explanation, that Modi "is developing [India] very fast."

Indeed, Modi’s speech was unifying and inoffensive. And his thousands of supporters in attendance didn’t think he oversold. "Everything in the speech was about the national identity of India," Kansupada, the young fashion entrepreneur, said afterwards. Modi is for fighting bureaucratic red tape, "funding toilets, access to clean water and power," he said. "It was all the things you can’t disagree with. Wouldn’t it be strange to say, yes, pollution is good? Nothing he mentioned were things you could contradict or be against."

And maybe that’s the story of Modi and his speechifying. Just before he left, the new prime minister asked the audience to "all join hands to serve our Mother India. Whatever we can do, we should do for our country." With Modi at the helm, of course. He smiled. "Long Live Mother India!" he shouted. And everyone responded, in that single unified voice of the crowd.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
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