If Narendra Modi’s triumphant visit to the United States was marked by a series of photo-ops, two stood out: The first was in New York’s Central Park, where the Indian prime minister made a visit to a high-profile citizens’ festival. To see Modi being greeted by Hollywood superstar Hugh Jackman amid a cheering crowd of 50,000 American youth seemed almost surreal. The crowd had come to listen to popular rock stars like Sting: They had discovered an Indian political pop idol instead.
“We are one, I salute you, may the force be with you,” said Modi in English to an audience which perhaps didn’t even know who he was but just liked the idea of a politician rubbing shoulders with icons of popular culture. If any proof was needed as to why Modi strikes a chord with the young, Central Park provided ample evidence.
The second was at Madison Square Garden, where the atmosphere was truly electric. This was, of course, a more familiar crowd: Thousands of NRIs from Florida to California, New Jersey to Texas, had congregated at one of America’s most celebrated auditoriums to endorse and almost pay obeisance to an individual who was being projected as a larger than life Supreme Leader. Organised with trademark flair, this was event management par excellence: from the rotating stage to the 3D images, there was a ‘shock and awe’ element to the function that left you dazed.
What struck me though was that one moment when over 40 US Congressmen lined up on stage to greet the prime minister even as the hall reverberated to “Modi, Modi” chants. It was almost as if Capitol Hill had descended on New York to salute an Indian leader. With that one gesture, a decade of isolation and acrimony seemed to be set aside: America had discovered, or rather re-discovered Modi, the very politician they had denied a visa to in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. It is a little-known fact but Modi spent an entire summer in the year 2000 in New York. This was a difficult period in his politics: He was accused of spreading factionalism and disaffection in the Himachal Pradesh and Haryana BJP units, which he was in charge of. Gujarat, which had seen four chief ministers in three years, was also out of bounds for him.
Almost pushed into near-exile, Modi found sympathy amid the non-resident Gujarati community and the Overseas Friends of the BJP. The bracing air of a New York summer proved so attractive that then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee on a State visit to the US had to remind him, “Narendrabhai, ab vaapas India chaliye!”
A friend also showed me a photograph of a youngish-looking Modi in the mid-1990s clicked just outside the White House. In a kurta-pajama with a jhola around his neck, he looks every inch an awestruck tourist standing outside the mighty gates of the US presidential house. Little would he have known then that one day he would be dining with the US president in the White House.
By all accounts then, Modi was a frequent visitor to the US through the years before he became Gujarat chief minister. He liked and admired the “American way of life”, the spirit of entrepreneurship and the work ethic. He had built enduring friendships with many of the non-resident Gujaratis who hosted him on his visits. Which is why the denial of a visa hurt him personally in a manner which he would perhaps scarcely admit readily. It was almost as if a country which he had looked up to had suddenly turned its back on him, almost as if a blossoming love affair had been suddenly interrupted by a dramatic change in circumstance.
Which is why the US visit was important for the prime minister to show that he had shaken off the sense of hurt and moved on. To his credit, not once during his various meetings in the US did he rake up the visa issue. It reflected a welcome desire to look beyond past antagonisms and focus on the future. It was critical for the US too to not see Modi through the narrow prism of Hindutva politics, but through the mirror of a popularly elected leader who believes that “India’s business is business.”
In that sense, the future of the India-US relations will depend less on Washington and more on the government to business (G to B) ties, be it in a New York, or even in a San Francisco. Modi has long since recognised this. When Capitol Hill invoked an International Religious Freedom Act to deny him a visa, Modi began his ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summits in 2005 to attract US businesses to his home state.
Business leaders were meant to send out the message to the political class that Gujarat was an attractive investment destination. It was Modi’s way of checkmating his critics who had politically ostracised him by tapping into America’s latent desire for wealth creation.
It is this “G to B” equation that Modi is likely to push in the months ahead with his “Make in India” mantra. It could become the centrepiece of his foreign policy initiatives, be it with Washington or Beijing or Tokyo. Which is why amid all the hype around his US visit, there was just one discordant note. A day before the prime minister arrived in New York, the city was hosting a big-ticket India Investors summit with leading global investors in attendance. The hosts had sent invitations to at least half a dozen Union ministers. Not a single minister was present, apparently because none of them were given permission to travel to the US.
Hopefully, the prime minister will realise that it will take more than just his personal image to sell the India Story. We need to see much more of Team Modi on show.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist.
The views expressed by the author are personal.