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Rediff.com  » News » Modi@MSG: An Indian-American point of view

Modi@MSG: An Indian-American point of view

Last updated on: October 01, 2014 12:10 IST

'The speech shone a spotlight on both the promise and the challenges of the Narendra Modi era,' says Ram Kelkar. 'The single-minded focus which Mr Modi displayed on issues of good governance and empowering the private sector and individual enterprise.'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, September 28, 2014. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.comNarendra Nath Datta, known to all as Swami Vivekananda, began his historic speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 by calling upon the 'Sisters and Brothers of America.' 121 years later with millions of people of Indian origin residing in the Americas, his namesake Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his address calling upon 'Dear brothers and sisters who have settled in America.'

Madison Square Garden gave a veritable rock star welcome to Mr Modi, with chants of 'Mo-di! Mo-di!' reverberating through an iconic New York City venue which was packed with Indian Americans from all over the country.

In spite of the high security arrangements befitting a visiting head of State of a major world power, the MSG security team did a sterling job in coordination with Secret Service agents and TSA security staff.

A line of people that had stretched out on all four sides of the massive Penn Station and Madison Square Garden complex was quickly and efficiently frisked and scanned and admitted into the arena. All ticket holders were in their seats well in time for Mr Modi's speech, in spite of elaborate security checks, unlike some recent fiascos at Super Bowls and other high profile public events.

All around one could see a sea of Modi posters, Modi T-shirts, Modi banners and Modi face-paint, with loud chants of 'Mo-di!' and drums beating loudly, creating an atmosphere akin to a country fair in rural India. The diversity of India was on full display, with Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi chatter emanating from an audience dressed in everything from saris to kurta pajamas to traditional Bohra Muslim dress.

The t-shirts, posters and screens in Madison Square Garden had an illustration of Mr Modi's face which had an eerie similarity to the famous election poster of President Obama by Shepard Fairey that became synonymous with his campaign slogan of 'Hope.'

The audience gave a warm welcome to the emcees, PBS anchor Hari Sreenivasan and Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri. A parade of 30-plus United States Congresspersons and Senators and Governor Nikki Haley marched on stage and were welcomed in most instances with loud cheers and applause. However, there was an eruption of boos when Bobby Jindal's name was mentioned as having sent his regrets for not attending. Chants of 'USA! USA!' brought smiles to the lawmakers' faces.

Mr Modi's speech and mien has all the characteristics of a campaign rally, replete with crowd pleasing lines and catchy slogans. The one-liner which brought the crowd to its feet and roaring in approval was when he said that he was just a chaiwallah, a commoner who had landed in the prime minister's office from humble beginnings.

In line with the BJP's aversion to paying lip service and singing paeans to India's religious diversity, Mr Modi did not make even a single reference to secularism in his speech. He opened the speech with words extolling the importance of Navratri, which he described as a celebration of Shakti and purification.

He then went on to praise the audience of Indian Americans for having achieved so much through their enterprising ways to raise India's profile in the world, having come thousands of miles away from home.

Mr Modi brought the house down with his anecdote about how India had gone from being a land of snake-charmers to a country whose youngsters were using a mouse to make the world go round.

The new government's focus on good governance resonated with the audience. To the amusement and joy of the crowd, Mr Modi expressed mock amazement at the fact that Indian newspapers thought it was newsworthy to report that Delhi bureaucrats now felt obliged to show up to work on time.

Mr Modi also underlined the three unique strengths of India -- the 3 'Ds' of democracy, demographics and demand. A country of 1.25 billion where 65% of the population was below 35 was a huge opportunity for the world, both as a market and as a source of talent.

Another theme that the speech emphasised was cleanliness and access to hygienic toilet facilities, which was, of course, a very popular idea for the audience. Mr Modi added that as much as Mahatma Gandhi did to give India freedom from foreign rule, he had also extolled the importance of cleanliness.

Outside the venue, there were throngs of reporters trying to get sound bites from the attendees to play to audiences back in India. Chants of 'Har Har Modi!' were commonplace and the almost religious fervour of the pro-Modi attendees was unbounded and somewhat unsettling.

Given the Modi-mania enveloping the crowds at MSG, it was inevitable that there would be confrontations between anyone who was not considered to be sufficiently pro-Modi. There were conflicting reports about whether Indian television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai provoked the audience into a fight or was merely defending himself and his camera crew from a crowd that deemed him to be anti-Modi.

The fight went viral on Twitter with James Fontanella-Khan tweeting that 'Mob of people attacking an Indian journalist for being critical of Modi on the past. Accused if (sic) being a traitor' As is inevitable in the Twitter age, there was a battle of hashtags between #RajdeepSlapped and #IStandWithRajdeep

A blog report on the Web site of the normally staid Economist magazine had some extremely condescending things to say about the speech... 'Which censored sports star or musician is snarling traffic around Madison Square Garden, an arena normally graced by WrestleMania, the Knicks and the Rolling Stones? Actually, today's performer is a politician: Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister. Inside are over 18,000 Indian Americans 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. 'Modi, Modi, Modi,' shout the massed oncologists, engineers and entrepreneurs, wearing T-Shirts bearing his face and the slogan Unity, Action, Progress.'

In the final reckoning, the speech shone a spotlight on both the promise and the challenges of the Narendra Modi era. The single-minded focus which Mr Modi displayed on issues of good governance and empowering the private sector and individual enterprise, without any pandering to pseudo-secular shibboleths was heartening.

Yet at the same time, the absolute adulation and unquestioning hero-worship of Modi supporters, who were quick to berate non-believers on social media and reportedly beat up a journalist just because he was deemed to be not pro-Modi enough was equally unsettling.

And lastly, the unwillingness of Western media and the US government to respect the wishes of India's voters and the decisions of its Supreme Court, and instead continuing to harp on the Godhra tragedy, while turning a blind eye to a veritable rogue's gallery of supporters of religious extremism from the Middle East and Pakistan reeks of hypocrisy and double standards.

Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based writer.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, September 28, 2014. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Ram Kelkar