When and why the world has turned its gaze on Narendra Modi

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 29, 2014 20:07 IST

If you thought that it was only the Indian media which was covering Narendra Modi’s US visit, you are mistaken – for the American media is gazing hard at what hit New York over the weekend.

When the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited White House last year, on his final bilateral visit to the US, the Washington Post did not find it quite newsworthy. This time, even before Modi got to the US capital, the paper had done several stories around his visit.

Annie Gowen, the India bureau chief of the Post, told HT, “There has been a lot more coverage than when Indian prime ministers have visited in the past. I have already done a story. We had a blog on the Madison Square Garden (MSG) event, and another story on the Indian diaspora. Our White House reporters will be covering Modi’s meetings with Obama, as well as the State Department lunch.”

The New York Times has also kept a close watch on the visit. Its South Asia bureau chief, Ellen Barry, wrote a piece introducing Modi’s style of governance so far, which was published on Page 1. The Times ran a snippet on how Modi’s fast would impact White House’ dinner diplomacy, as well as stories on Modi as the ‘Social Media Politician’, the build up to his MSG event, a mood piece on the event itself, and an analytical story on the bilateral relationship.

In one story, a reporter gushed, “Old and young, Indian-born and American-born, the crowd laughed and roared, hollered and clapped.” Apart from the Post and Times, Modi himself gave a pre-visit interview to CNN and wrote an oped in the Wall Street Journal.

The Economist, in a blog, was less adulatory in its tone, pointing to the traffic snarl caused by Modi, and analysed his motivations as two-fold – to build an American support base powerful enough to shape US policy towards India and provide TV images back home to confirm his status as a global giant. Strikingly, Modi even made it to the news-satire John Oliver show, Last Week Tonight, on HBO where Oliver said among world leaders who had descended on New York for the UN summit, no one has had a ‘bigger impact’ than Modi – though he mistakenly called him India’s foreign minister.

So what explains the interest?

One reason is precisely that Americans, outside campaign season, are not used to the fever pitch excitement around a politician – especially at a time when their own politicians have low popularity ratings. Milan Vaishnav, South Asia associate at Carnegie Endowment, told HT from Washington, “Many Americans are fascinated that a world leader can book (and fill) MSG.”
He added that the ‘dramatic reversal’ in US government’s perception of Modi and his imminent welcome to Oval office, as well as his compelling life story and electoral mandate means he is coming to DC from a position of strength. “This is a departure from recent PM visits to Washington.”

Gowen concurs, “He is obviously a larger-than-life figure and fairly charismatic to many Indians. He is newly elected. Many in US tuned in rather late to the prospect of him winning, and realized this was a man who was banned to enter the United States. So there is curiosity about this person India has elected.”

Some perspective is important though. While there is an increase in US press coverage, it pales in front of the relentless Indian media coverage. The increase has also been largely in print and online and it is to be seen if US TV channels ramp up coverage as Modi arrives in the US capital.

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