Cover story: Modi in America


Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Narendra Modi’s American whirlwind was a 100- hour-long non-stop performance starring Asia’s most popular politician selling his idea of India and his own legend to an enchanted audience...
‘Namo’ste America. ‘Modison’ Square Garden. Washington, De-si.

Okay, I made the last one up, but the first two were the witless puns with which we were clobbered over the head repeatedly by NDTV and others in the four-and-a- half days that Narendra Modi spent in the United States. The Indian electronic media acquitted itself ingloriously. The accounts of the PM’s visit were breathless and gushing. Critical voices were largely written out of the script, lest viewers back home choke on bones of discord. The narrative had to be spotless.

Some print journalists were no better. At a press conference conducted by the unflappable Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, veteran Indian hacks vied with each other in their questions on the gift-giving between Modi and Barack Obama. What did Obama think of the gifts? Did the Prime Minister get anything for Michelle Obama? What did Obama give Modi in return? And the question that really took the cake for unabashed sycophancy: What was the Prime Minister wearing when he gave his gift to Obama? A bemused Akbaruddin was reduced to pointing out that Modi was wearing the same clothes that he had on before he handed over the gift. (It hardly needs recounting that Modi presented Obama with his standard party favour, the Bhagavad Gita.)

It is not my intention to be churlish about the trip, a review of which I offer here, much in the manner of a theatre critic. Modi scarcely put a foot wrong. America had not seen an Indian Prime Minister like him. America, in fact, had not seen a visiting head of government like him—from anywhere in the world—since Fidel Castro, a vastly different species of man, blustered his way through Manhattan in 1960.

Brash, cocksure, implacably convinced of the virtues of his own message, Modi went to the United Nations, to Central Park, to Madison Square Garden, to the Council on Foreign Relations, to the White House, interspersing speeches or meetings at these venues with pow-wows with America’s top CEOs, plus confabs with leaders of the Indian and Jewish communities, not to mention time out for the Clintons, for Congressional leader John Boehner, for John Kerry, for Joe Biden, and for dear old Harold Varmus, the 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, currently director of the US National Cancer Institute. Oh, and let’s not forget his friend Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom he carved out a special tete-a-tete in New York. (The Tablet, an influential Jewish publication in the city, commented that the ‘most important thing Netanyahu did in New York’ was to meet Modi.)

Modi didn’t rub shoulders with leaders and politicians alone. He mingled with crowds in Manhattan, shaking hands and greeting throngs outside his hotel. At a dinner at the Pierre Hotel in New York (which is now owned by the Taj Group), he spoke for barely five minutes, devoting the rest of the time to posing for photographs with each of the 700 guests invited, all of whom were Indian- American men and women deemed ‘distinguished’ by the Indian Embassy in Washington. I, too, was there (somewhat improbably) and met an economics professor from Tufts, the dean of a business school, a Fields Medal winner (just 38 years old), a politics professor from Brown, the lovely curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, a New York Times bureau chief, and a retired Indian ambassador, all in the space of a few minutes.

These people of serious prestige queued patiently for their photo-op with the Prime Minister. The announcement made clear that each person would get six seconds of face time, but a clock is elastic in the hands of Indians, and 10 seconds was the norm. Do the Math, as they say in the US: 10 seconds times 700 = almost two hours of pose- and-click, calling for remarkable stamina from a fasting man with only warm water in his belly. (I don’t need to explain this reference: all of India knows that Modi did not eat in America.) Two hours of gum-sapping smiles, two hours of fragmentary chitchat, two hours upright on his weary calves, two hours—let’s face it—of patriotic hell, even for a man like Modi.

By the time you read this, the dailies and TV anchors will have picked apart every detail of the trip. You will know that India and the US are (per Modi) ‘natural partners’. He said so at the White House. And he said so, with Obama, in a joint op-ed in The Washington Post. The piece, a string of high-octane platitudes, was published online, not in the print edition of the newspaper. But contrary to speculation that it didn’t make it to print because it was dull, the op-ed ran online-only because of “the timing of its arrival”, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt told me. Who did the piece come from, I asked. “We were approached,” Hiatt said, “by both the Indian Embassy and the White House. The piece actually came to us from the White House.”

The official political outcomes of the trip were pretty much as expected. Stripped of all the verbiage, and discounting such gestures as an agreement to launch a new US-India Climate Fellowship Program, the two countries have re-affirmed their belief that they have a Good Thing Going: lots of potential partnership and collaboration, all in the pipeline, in every field known to bilateral relations. India and the US will, it is clear, be fast friends for the foreseeable future, nothing more, nothing less. The A-word—‘alliance’—was avoided in favour of the more ambiguous, though hardly unpalatable, ‘partnership’. This is the Modi method. India will focus on its national interest unsentimentally, taking what it can from whomever it can, promising little that is concrete while recognising a civilisational consonance with such partners as the US. Washington, for its part, can live with that, for it knows that India will never be (nor ever want to be) its competitor or foe.

The crowning achievement of Modi’s trip was the deployment of America’s Indian diaspora in the service of the Motherland. Indian-Americans have always been more concerned (even obsessed) with the politics of India than have Indians in Britain, home to the other great Indian diaspora in the West. Why this should be so is, in itself, a fascinating question. Indians in Britain have existed as a substantial community for much longer, and are, as a result, much better integrated into the politics of their adopted country. They are, in most cases, now into a third generation. Indian-Americans, by contrast, are only in the first- and second-generation stage.

Contemporary America, in addition, makes fewer integrative demands of its immigrants. It is enough to acquire the outward trappings of Americanness, and to speak passable English. Beyond that, assimilation has almost disappeared as a requirement. Immigrants are encouraged to parade through the streets on their ‘national days’, and the great push to ‘respect’ every national identity as equally valuable has meant that immigrants in America retain their culture-of-origin more strongly (and into more generations) than ever before. If you combine that reality with the fact that Indian-Americans are, on average, the wealthiest and best-educated ethnic group in America, you have a potent legion of advocates for India right in the heart of American society.

But the diaspora is “a latent asset”, according to Devesh Kapur, director for the Center for Advanced Studies of India at the University of Pennsylvania (who happened to be seated at my table at the dinner at the Pierre Hotel). “It needs some catalyst to activate and energise it. It could be an event, such as Kargil, or the nuclear deal… or, more rarely, the catalyst could be a leader, as in Modi’s case.” The diaspora has been present in the US for decades, for much of that time a great, underutilised resource. Modi has drilled deep for its support—political fracking, if you like—and appears to have hit the mother-lode.

Modi-as-catalyst: this was a point suggested to me, also, by Karthik Ramakrishnan, professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. “In our 2012 survey (the National Asian American Survey, which he directs) Indian Americans were not as engaged in home country politics as other Asian Americans, even though Indian Americans tend to be among the most recently arrived of Asians in the US.” So, the professor continues, “Forty per cent of Indian Americans closely followed politics in their home country, compared to a 54 per cent average for Asian Americans, and a high of 69 per cent for Chinese Americans.” As for US foreign policy toward the home country, only 40 per cent of Indian Americans paid heed to it, compared with 50 per cent for all Asian Americans and 64 per cent for Chinese Americans.

It is almost certain that these numbers for Indian Americans are, today, much higher than they were in 2012; and it is likely that those old numbers reflect an apathy toward Indian politics born of a fatigue with the policies and corruption of the Congress-led alliance in Delhi. It is obvious to the naked eye (unaided by pollsters) that the Indian elections of 2014 have galvanised Indian Americans. “Part of Modi’s appeal,” explains Professor Ramakrishnan, “may lie with the large Gujarati population in the US, which may feel a measure of home- region pride. Modi also seems to project a level of energy and control that few Indian Prime Ministers have expressed recently. Some of this may stem from the decisive victory that the BJP had; but it also stems from the skilful management of Modi’s image prior to, and after, the elections.”

The event at Madison Square Garden—which many Indian-Americans refer to, without irony, as a ‘show’—wasn’t just another example of this vaunted image management; it was an impressive show of strength. It was also (in spite of all the protestors outside the arena) an ecstatic ‘coming out party’ for Indians in America.

“I’m 31. I’ve been to some of the biggest Indian gatherings in New York and Washington. I’m a centrist, politically. But I’ve never felt the sort of goosebumps that I felt when I heard the Indian national anthem at Madison Square Garden. After that, it was roof-shattering enthusiasm. ‘Modi! Modi!’ all the way.” These are the words of Karthik Rangarajan, a data warehouse test manager with Cognizant, eight years in the US on an H1-B visa, who got tickets for the event from his local Tamil Sangam for himself, his wife, his mother (“a major fan of Modi”; “she was in happy tears”); his mother-in-law; and his two kids (one of them but a few months old, “the youngest attendee, I’m sure”). There were 20,000 people like Karthik at the Garden, most of them, one has to assume, passionate Modi supporters.

That number—20,000—wasn’t as impressive as another number at Madison Square Garden: 34 (being the sum of 29 US Congressmen, four U.S. senators, and one state governor—Nikki Haley of South Carolina— all present at the very long event). That so many high elected officials felt the need to be at Modi’s bash suggests that the American political establishment has awakened to the potential clout of the Indian-American community. The unresolved question, of course, is the political trajectory of this community. Where do they want to go with their clout? As Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based low-taxation advocacy group, put it to me, “They have to work out what ‘winning’ would be for them.”

There is a plethora of ethnic groups in the US. Some, Norquist explains with a chuckle, have one-point programmes with which they confront all elected representatives. “The Cuban-Americans want the US to shun Castro. The Armenian-Americans want to know that you hate Turkey. The Greek-Americans also want to know that you hate Turkey… and that you won’t call Macedonia ‘Macedonia’. What do the Indian-Americans want? What do they want their mayors, their state legislatures, their governors to do?” They need to find “consensus issues”, issues that “people feel most deeply about.” Only then will they translate their position into real clout.

Modi knows this better than anyone else, better even, it seems, than the Indian Americans do themselves. His party has deep roots in the US, and his promises of reform, not to mention his charisma, have drawn many politically agnostic Indian Americans to his side. He has at his disposal in the United States an enviable force of people, Indian by blood and spirit, American by citizenship or professional choice, who are raring to promote the interests of India. He intends to help them do so, and to ensure that they don’t fragment.

The White House has taken note of these Indian- Americans, and it has taken note, too, of Modi’s hold over them. The Indian diaspora in America could come to be India’s strongest political asset abroad. This is what Modi wants to happen. This is what his trip to America was about.