“I have been a supporter ALL my life,” declares a breathless Karan, who has spent four hours strategically positioned outside the Indian embassy in Tokyo. He has just attained mini-Nirvana: Narendra Modi emerged from his motorcade, crossed the road and spent five minutes chatting and being photographed with a group that included the perky 14-year-old.
For 15 months now and across the 25 countries he has visited, Modi has had Indians abroad eating out of his hands, be it at Madison Square Garden or the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. Viewers at home may have seen a shade more of him than they absolutely need to, but overseas, they can’t seem to get their fill of the man. What makes him tick on his foreign visits?
A quick scan of his major trips provides some cues – think audience, style and message.
Audience: Who does Modi address? Large parts of the Indian diaspora have struggled their way up the ladder in the face of poverty, racism and plain jealousy. From well-heeled Wall Street bankers to blue collar workers in the Gulf, each has had his own struggle. The prize for which they leave these shores is opportunity; the cost they pay is a life that is in some ways harder than the one they left behind. Many are torn between a longing for home and an exasperation at the failings of their mother country and its leaders, especially when these are showcased by the media where they live and picked on by their friends.
While nobody is suggesting that every Indian abroad is full of breathless adulation, the sceptics seem to be fewer in proportion, or at least quieter, than at home. That’s probably because the diaspora has been hankering for an Indian who can hold his own, at least in terms of optics, with leaders of their host countries. After a slightly mournful parade of low-key PMs, here is a performer who stands out.
Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were intellectuals in their own right, but searching for them in the obligatory group photograph after a summit meeting is a bit of a task, even with the turban advantage that Manmohan enjoyed over everyone else. (He was, of course, in subdued blue)
If you’re an Indian construction worker in Abu Dhabi, life can be grim; you may not agree with what Modi says or does back home, but for a few hours you can hold your head high after your PM has been orange-juiced and dined by the local royalty.
Style: If Modi ever took to wearing turbans abroad, he would almost certainly pick a bright colour. Check out his Independence Day headgear – saffron this year, tricolour last -- immaculately tied.
There’s no need, of course. The Indian PM is invariably well turned out and photogenic, and is a master at orchestrating photo-ops. On his Japan visit, he positioned himself obligingly with a picturesque Buddhist shrine in the background; he was even heard telling a photographer from where to shoot. Here is a PM that is guaranteed to not embarrass the diaspora, at least visually.
Message: We saw it on the election trail, and we see it again on the global stage. Modi is a man who tailors his message for the audience. Not for him the one-size-fits-all mumble.
To businessmen, he will talk of the ease of doing business (or acknowledge the lack thereof, and showcase his drive to improve it); to Gulf workers, he will attempt a line of Malayalam and acknowledge the importance of their remittances. Less predictably, if he’s addressing students of a music school, he’s likely to pick up a flute and play a couple of notes.
He makes a point of speaking Hindi, which scores plenty of points with an invariably nationalistic diaspora. Picking Hindi over English also precludes the possibility of a slip-up. And he is capable of springing the odd surprise, like when he addressed the Australian parliament in English – a feat he pulled off with some elan.
Right from the time he was chief minister of Gujarat running the Vibrant Gujarat summits, Modi has been a master at packaging outcomes; you will invariably get an eye-popping (proposed) investment number at the end of a trip, a number that his fans abroad will brandish with pride.
In fact, for overseas Indians, what he says sometimes has less bearing than the fact that they have actually got some time with a rock star PM. Modi’s speeches range from the high-voltage to the unremarkable, but that’s beside the point. When provoked about whether Modi was more style than substance, Murlidhar, a hotel employee in Dubai, would have none of it. “Everything starts by creating positive energy,” he said.
Modi’s flawless performances abroad may also have to do with the fact that he’s more relaxed on his visits than he is back home. Would you rather face hostile opposition parliamentarians demanding the resignation of your foreign minister, or be surrounded by adoring autograph seekers?