The Economist, of course, had to be nasty about the public reception organised by Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden in New York City for Prime Minister Narendra Modi last weekend. During this summer’s election, the British magazine had taken on the proverbial white man’s burden in attempting to halt the march of the unwashed masses on Lutyens’s Delhi. In the event, it got the popular mood horribly wrong. Dismayed and disgraced, it had to watch Modi, a chaiwallah, taking charge as Prime Minister, instead of Rahul Gandhi, who, no doubt, meets The Economist’s towering expectations from the person aspiring to head, or heading, the Government of India. Since then, an embittered Economist has lost no opportunity to berate Modi and show him down.
So it wasn’t surprising that The Economist, in a post-event commentary headlined “India, America and political theatre: I give you Narendra Modi”, should have dismissed the Madison Square Garden show as no more than a glitzy performance attended by Indians “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”. Nor was the racist tone and tenor of the critique unexpected. It is a perfect reflection of the The Economist’s intellectual stature that it described Modi as “the pain-in-the-ass snarling traffic” outside Penn Station. Faced with protest, the editor thought it wise to amend that to “which pain-in-the-ass sports star or musician is snarling traffic”.
The New York Times, which has not exactly lagged behind The Economist in heaping calumny on Modi, was more charitable in its coverage of the Madison Square Garden event – actually, more a public rally than a public reception. In a report headlined “At Madison Square Garden, chants, cheers, roars for Modi”, the paper conceded, or at least the reporter did, that “the American tour has showcased Mr Modi as a diplomat and world leader…” That’s in sharp contrast to The Economist’s obnoxious and condescending comment that to “get here, to the Garden, Mr Modi has spent decades roaring himself hoarse thousands of times before crowds of peasants in parched fields”.
Interestingly, both The Economist and The New York Times have referred to the sports stars and rock stars whose shows have made Madison Square Garden a hot spot in New York and a recognisable name around the world, at least among the chattering classes. “And when the man himself emerged,” reported The New York Times, “the capacity crowd in New York’s most-storied arena roared as one, as if all the Knicks, all the Rangers, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen had suddenly materialised.” The Economist was, shall we say, less exuberant in wondering: “Which pain-in-the-ass sports star or musician is snarling traffic around Madison Square Garden, an arena normally graced by WrestleMania, the Knicks and the Rolling Stones?”
Funnily, and this speaks volumes about institutional memory at both the papers’ offices, neither The New York Times nor The Economist cared to mention that the last time Madison Square Garden was rocked by an Indian, it was in 1971 when Ravi Shankar, along with Ali Akbar Khan, Allah Rakha and Kamala Chakravarty, performed at the Concert for Bangladesh. That was to raise funds to help millions of refugees pouring into India during the Bangladesh Liberation War – starving men, women and children whom a poor India could warmly embrace but barely feed. Nor was any mention made, if only for frivolous fun, of the fact that the mood inside Madison Square Garden was reminiscent of Beatlemania that washed ashore in America exactly 50 years ago. It was Modimania before, after and all the way through the 70 minutes that he spoke. To deny that would be churlish.
But it would be silly to suggest, as has been done by many, that Madison Square Garden was about organised razzmatazz, meant to dazzle those who took note of the event at home and abroad, and provide a platform to the converted for waving the flag and cheering the leader. That would not only be simplistic but also misleading. Modi is far too astute to be taken in by the promise of a “grand show”; he wouldn’t have been at Madison Square Garden unless it served more than one purpose. Indeed, he wouldn’t have agreed to the public reception-turned-rock concert if it had not offered short, medium and long-term gains.
The last time a Prime Minister of India made waves in America was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the US in 2000 for a high-profile summit meeting with President Bill Clinton that marked the end of estrangement and the beginning of a strategic relationship between two natural allies – the world’s oldest and largest democracies. Vajpayee understood the importance of the Indian diaspora, among whom his long-standing popularity was unquestionable, in protecting this relationship through political activism and pushing India’s case on Capitol Hill by lobbying with key Congressmen. He appointed a special envoy to network with the Indian community for this twin purpose.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the UPA Government, bilateral relations with the US were straitjacketed to the confines of an unimaginative PMO and the dull babudom of Ministry of External Affairs. Relations with the US waxed during the early years of UPA 1 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh single-mindedly pursued the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. By the summer of 2009, relations had begun to wane. It had all but withered away in the last years of UPA 2, notwithstanding President Barack Obama’s visit, and dinners at the White House and Race Course Road. The diaspora fell out of the frame somewhere along the way and Manmohan Singh made no effort to put it back.
Modi clearly believes, like Vajpayee did, that the diaspora can play an important role in reviving India-US relations and making them more robust and meaningful. The show at Madison Square Garden was his way of reaching out to Indian Americans, communicating with them directly, talking them up, addressing their concerns and asking them to become partners in the revival of the “India Story”. His immediate goal was to enthuse the diaspora and rid it of the despondency that had settled in during recent years. He has succeeded in that effort.
Second, Modi wants to leverage the changing profile of the diaspora. By asking them to play a participatory role in making full use of India’s potential and possibilities, he has initiated the process of harnessing the talent and resources of Indians abroad. This would be a medium term goal. How he goes about this task remains to be seen. Third, in the long term, he would like to see the Indian diaspora actively and constantly pushing India’s interests without being prompted to do so, not in fragmented groups with linguistic, community and ideological markers segregating them, but as a single entity that enjoys social, political and economic clout. If Jewish Americans can wield tremendous influence on America’s Israel policy, there is no reason why Indian Americans cannot act in a similar manner, moulding and refashioning America’s India policy. That there were at least 30 American lawmakers present at Madison Square Garden tells its own story.
Last, though not the least, it was a thanksgiving ceremony. Through the decade when Modi was pilloried at home, subjected to calumny and worse by a relentlessly hostile media, and barred from entering the US under a law whose application was always questionable in his case, the Indian diaspora in America, barring academics and self-styled guardians of human rights, stood by him. At a similar event he was supposed to attend a decade ago but couldn’t, a chair was kept empty in his honour. Last weekend, there was not a single chair empty at Madison Square Garden or the various places where the event was broadcast live. While thanking them for their support, Modi’s voice choked with emotion and he looked visibly moved to tears. It was a simple though touching and sincere gesture. And people still value sincerity. Tragically, this simple fact went largely ignored in both adulatory and critical reports and television shows.