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Beyond Modi-son Square Garden

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
November 2014
Beyond Modi-son Square Garden



Welcome to the largest ever public reception for any foreign leader in America! Here’s an eyewitness account of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic appearance and speech at New York City’s iconic arena, and what went into organizing such a large event within just over two months. This is followed by an editorial perspective exploring the polarities of this enigmatic leader.



He came, he saw, he conquered.

In popular desi lore, even the name of the venue was transformed from Madison Square Garden to Modison Square Garden. In an admission process that lasted well over 4 hours, Indians who are generally averse to sticking to queues, maintained their positions for hours in a line snaking across several blocks surrounding the venue. Elsewhere around the venue, overjoyed crowds in Modi t-shirts thronged the streets. The chants of ‘Mo-Di! Mo-Di!’ were fervent.

It was a full scale Indian invasion of midtown Manhattan. There were Indians everywhere— in pizza places, in taxis and trains, and of course, on foot. Indians posing outside Penn Station with life-size cutouts of Modi, being interviewed by the TV channels from India, and a large Indian crowd at Times Square, awaiting the live telecast there of Modi’s speech from inside the MSG just a few blocks away.

In New York, on that temperate fall Sunday of September 28, 2014, they gathered by the thousands to greet and hear him, and experience his charisma—the sort of fanfare normally reserved for showbiz personalities.




Prime Minister Narendra Modi surrounded by U.S. lawmakers prior to his much touted speech to a crowd of over 18,000 at the Madison Square Garden. (Photo: Indian American Community Foundation)



From banned leader to rock star PM
It was hard to believe that just about a decade ago Modi had been banned from traveling to the U.S. for his alleged complicity, as the presiding Chief Minister of Gujarat, in the communally targeted killings during the Godhra riots of 2002. The Indian-American organizers of that event which Modi could not attend due to the visa denial, had to make do with a satellite appearance that was telecast from India to his followers in Madison Square Garden.

Now, that same venue was rocking in anticipation of Modi, the man himself in flesh and blood. I asked Gopi Shah, a young woman who had recently moved from Mumbai as to what excited her about coming out to hear him. She was all smiles as she said, “Ache din aane wale hain, so I’m waiting to see the person who is bringing in these good days! I really want to see him!”

This rock star welcome for the Prime Minister was unlike anything community watchers have seen in the annals of Indian-American history. Indeed, at over 18,000 attendees, this MSG gathering is said to have been the largest public reception for any foreign leader in America.

Behind the scenes
In email responses to Khabar, Dr. Bharat Barai, president of the Indian American Community Foundation (IACF), the main host of the event, said, “To organize such a large program at a venue like the Madison Square Garden in just two-and-a-half months was extremely challenging. Many people discouraged me. I told them that [backing off] was not an option. We had good, dedicated volunteers who gave up a lot to make it work, and work extremely well! It brought out their bright side, and united the community. It was out of love and admiration for Narendrabhai that this could happen.”

Dr. Barai also outlined several innovative features that his team managed to implement despite never having organized an event of this magnitude: web registration, lottery for tickets, live podcast on smartphones, rotating stage at MSG, ending his speech with a shower of balloons, and the live telecast at Times Square. He was also proud of the fact that two food companies distributed 40,000 packages of Indian food to all attendees at the venue as well as in the vicinity.

A special website (www.pmvisit.org) had been set up to ensure hassle free ticket giveaways. The event, as per Dr. Barai, had been oversubscribed by about 10,000 people, and last minute requests to attend came in at the rate of hundreds per day.

The efforts had a handsome payoff, now validated by the record turnout and the precision clockwork of the event. But perhaps the best indicator of success was that about 325 Indian organizations famous for being “all chiefs and no Indians” actually rallied together to pull off this unprecedented event.

Dr. Barai sums up the experience by saying, “The community learnt that we can do great things in a professional way, if we put our thoughts, planning, resources, and soul behind a cause that is dear to most of us. It injected a sense of self-confidence.”


A Modi fan decked in national colors. (Photo: Lavina Melwani)

Chandrakant Patel, the president of the Overseas Friends of BJP-U.S.A, Modi’s political party also weighed in when I ask him about the kind of work it took to manage such a large scale event. “About 20 committees and 1500 volunteers worked together in tandem to make this historic program a success. It was definitely the pull of Modi ji’s persona that worked in gathering so many people and so much enthusiasm.”

On a personal level, I was curious about Modi’s fast since he was observing the Navratas—did he not eat at all or eat just fruits? We tend to wilt away if we so much as miss a meal. How did he manage to be so remarkably energetic? Said Patel, “He was on warm water with lemon throughout his visit. He has been doing this for the last 36 years. Seems like yoga power.”

The famous Indian Standard Time, also known as Indian Stretchable Time, was nowhere to be found at this event. Indians, noted for strolling into shows well after they begin, were all seated punctually long be-fore the PM got there. If, in keeping with his cleanliness drive, Modi would have asked the audience members to clean up around Madsion Square Garden, many would have probably done that, too, willingly!

Glitz, glamor, and great organization
The show itself was flawlessly executed. Everything worked with clockwork precision. For entertainment, the organizers had blended Indian and American culture with a range of items from Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the U.S.A.”) to folk dances to popular music to the presence of Kavita Krishnamurthy and violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam. The emcees of the event were 2014 Miss America Nina Davuluri and PBS anchor Hari Sreenivasan, individuals representing a perfect blend of Indian heritage and American upbringing.

The speech was quintessential Modi. The media, predictably, lapped it all up, offering up the spectacle to an avidly watching global audience. The PM projected himself as a Merchant of Dreams, the pitch perfect salesman for India, an energized motivational speaker. Indeed, the former chai-seller was there with a much more intoxicating brew—of self-sufficiency, pride, and optimism for India.

Following is the crux of Modi’s Hindi speech:

Modi said winning the election is a huge responsibility and he will leave no stone unturned to make India a developed country. He said that with the blessings of 125 crore Indians, he was confident that the common man’s hopes and aspirations will be fulfilled. “I will do nothing to make you feel ashamed,” the Prime Minister said. He said that the country now had the capability, the possibility, and the opportunity to make the 21st century India’s century. He said India is both the youngest nation and the oldest civilization on earth. Saying that development is ultimately achieved through public participation, the Prime Minister said he wants to make development a mass movement, just like Mahatma Gandhi had made the freedom movement a mass movement. He highlighted various initiatives by the new Government including Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Make in India, Swachh Bharat, and Clean Ganga.

Chandrakant Patel, president of OFBJP-U.S.A., had this to say about the impact of this event as well as of Modi’s U.S. visit: “He stamped a lasting impression on the psyche of the Indian diaspora, U.S. administration and lawmakers, and the world leaders at the United Nations. He brought U.S.-India relations back on track.”



Protestors outside Madison Square Garden. (Photo: South Asian Solidarity Initiative).

Prachi Patankar, an organizer with the South Asian Solidarity Initiative, was one of the outnumbered but undeterred dissenters of Modi. (Photo: South Asian Solidarity Initiative)

Voices of dissent
Not everyone was overjoyed with the Modi visit. On the opposite side of Madison Square Garden were police barricades and the dissenting voices of activists of various stripes determined to rain on Modi’s parade. These were groups who chose protesting on the streets outside rather than celebrating what they called ‘toxic Hindu nationalism’ inside Madison Square Garden. The four groups were South Asian Solidarity Initiative, Ghadar Alliance, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), and Sikhs for Justice (SFJ).

As Prachi Patankar, organizer with the South Asian Solidarity Initiative told Khabar, “We felt that it was our responsibility to voice our opposition to Modi’s hateful agenda, expose his complicity in the past crimes and the whitewashing done by the media and some sections of the diaspora community about his ideology. The U.S. and Indian media has been pushing the rhetoric of ‘let the past go’ and give him time. We had to show that there is not a consensus and many of us don’t support him.”

She said other reason for the protest were to draw attention to current policies which threaten many through their economic agenda, keep up the pressure in the media, and promote a culture of vigilance.

Asked if most Indians would be in tune with that, Patankar responded, “We have to accept that many people will not protest or harshly criticize Modi now, but we have to plant the seed so when there are future cultural threats or policies that threaten livelihoods, we have made space for others to join us, too.”

Were there any actual conflicts with the Modi supporters? Patankar said, “There was a very hypernationalist, macho celebratory mood in the crowd. Any kind of dissent whether verbally or visually was attacked with abusive language. Many of us had already received threats through online messages on social media and bigoted comments. We were called ‘losers’ to our faces, to which I responded that ‘I would rather be a loser than a fascist.’”

She added: “A few individuals, perhaps a small minority of the crowd, of people even going into the event whispered their sympathy, said that it was important that we were here to hold him accountable, to keep some pressure on him, and expressed embarrassment at the majority of the hypernationalist and bigoted crowd. We want to start with building a campaign in the diaspora to change the narrative around Modi.”

Maya Chadda, professor of International Relations at William Paterson University, New Jersey, has been an insightful India watcher for several decades. She had a view to share regarding the amnesia about Gujarat vis-à-vis Indo-U.S. relations.

“I think that the Gujarat episode is like a silt that settles to the bottom only to rise when the waters are roiled,” she said. “My India watchers among American politicians and scholars here worry about the rise of bhagwats and all the Parivar organizations at grass roots level and the incorporation of Jan Sanghis in ministries and party leadership, but they are also willing to do business piece by piece. This signals lack of trust and caution. That will not take us far. Both countries need to decide that each can sacrifice their immediate interests or compromise them to an extent for a longer, stronger relationship. 2002 will resurface until Modi manages to build this relationship to a level where it is erased by goodwill.”

Striking the right chords
This may be so but the words which seemed to resonate with the diaspora Indians gathered in MSG were the Modi mantras about India’s place in the world, the grand promise of the 21st century being India’s century. After all, Indians had just made it to Mars that week. Modi spoke passionately of development as a mass movement and the right of every Indian to have a home and an income, and the hall erupted with joy, claps, and cascades of balloons in the colors of the two countries.

By and large, Indian immigrants and second generation Indian-Americans have the welfare of India at heart and want it to succeed. Their self-esteem and self-worth is tied up with that of India. On that score, the Modi interaction with the Indian diaspora not only struck the right chords, but generated the fevered hype thus far reserved only for Bollywood blockbusters.

As for interaction with the larger America, Modi seems to have scored well there, too, with American political and business leaders lauding his political savvy and ability to fire a nation’s imagination. So much has been written about the Modi visit that one could well compile a Modi Chronicle featuring the thoughts of opinion makers across the spectrum.

Wrote Times of India, “The scorching pace of 35 meetings set by the fasting PM showed very clearly that Modi went to the U.S. with a clear strategy, one that would stretch well beyond the visit. Unlike both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, Modi went to the U.S. with a strong domestic agenda. Modi’s aim was to converge his domestic priorities with his foreign policy, which explains why the joint statement bears such a strong stamp of the prime minister himself. Modi put his shoulder to the wheel to turn India’s U.S. policy to align itself to India’s domestic transformation and its global aspirations. In many ways, that is his greatest success.”


Author Lavina Melwani (Right) at the Press Box at Madison Square Garden.

Perception counts for a lot, and for Indians, both at home and abroad, the Modi visit to the U.S. was a shining moment. He seized the moment with his vision of an India that is at once ancient civilization and a youthful state, eager to be counted among the world’s leading nations. In that sense, the MSG event was nothing short of a coronation. Will the PM live up to these huge expectations? For the starry eyed bhakts gathered at MSG, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’!

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com. Twitter @lassiwithlavina. Google +.


Maya Chadda: on the impact of Modi’s American visit

We spoke to Dr. Maya Chadda, a member of the nonprofit think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, for her take on the impact the Modi visit had on Indo-U.S. relations. Chadda is the author of several books on South Asia and regional politics, including her latest Why India Matters.

“It was essentially a stock taking meeting to consolidate mutual intentions to move the relationship forward, and a gauging of leadership and personalities on both sides. Obama was cautiously impressed is my take,” she said.

Did Modi achieve what was expected? The answer is probably yes, but largely in atmospherics, and in specifying a desire for restoring the lost momentum. But now comes the hard part in sorting it all out. In this, domestic opposition to specific changes he needs to make—nuclear liability law, for instance—will slow it down.

Chhada believes that the Obama Administration had determined ahead of the visit that the ties had to be revived. On the other hand, “Modi has been playing more coy because there is an alternate school of thought among the Sangh/ BJP thinkers that India might be better off by not too closely tying up with the U.S. Instead, India should, they argue, keep options open by building on close cooperative relationship with Japan and China. In other words, India will not quickly fall into a position of a junior partner in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the security architecture U.S. is developing in Asia- Pacific, but retain instead a degree of independence, sort of Non-alignment 2.”

She believes that Modi’s vision has a strong economic component and therefore the U.S. is important. “Trade is crucial in furthering Indo-U.S. ties. There are large differences in approach and priorities between the U.S. and India on this. The areas of convergence are pockmarked by areas of unbridgeable differences. Nuclear liability and subsidies to farmers and food security legislation that just passed by our parliament are chief among the obstacles preventing momentum to Indo-U.S. ties.”

She observes, “The members of the Council on Foreign Relations were impressed by the projection of the Modi persona, his confidence and ease, his sense of representing a great nation, and his rhetorical flourishes–but most regretted that the speech lacked substance. We in the CFR are used to getting some sense of where the foreign policy is headed. Mr. Modi gave the same speech he gave in Madison Square Garden to an overenthused home audience. This was highly disappointing to most, and, in fact, Richard Hass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, ended the meeting with a cryptic comment, ‘There is one thing we have learnt from you Mr. PM, how not to answer questions, the art of evasion.’ Mr. Modi smiled. But most in the audience got the sense that the speech was meaningless for the most part.

“We got no inkling as to how India will maneuver through many contradictions it will face. How, for example, will Modi find a way through the Japan-China animosity when India wants to be a friend of both, or how he will address the ambivalence of Pakistan and the U.S. regarding the triad of India, Pakistan, and China at the meeting points of troubled borders and relations. Mr. Modi is a great campaigner and grassroots pracharak but an unproven leader in the global corridors of power.”

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