Red, white, and blue balloons, alongside their orange, white, and green counterparts, dropped slowly from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finished speaking to a wildly enthusiastic group of around 18,000 Indian-Americans on Sunday, September 28th. The event, titled #ModiInAmerica (a nod to Mr. Modi’s successful use of Twitter and other social media platforms during his campaign), was part of Modi’s first official trip to the United States as the newly elected Prime Minister, goal of promoting the US-India relationship under his new government.
Mr. Modi was scheduled to meet with President Obama, Hillary Clinton, as well as business leaders from Google and IBM, later in the week. But last Sunday afternoon was entirely about talking to the people. Donning a saffron tunic, emblematic of Hindu worship, and speaking only in Hindi, Mr. Modi captivated the giant arena. His language style was highly varied and sophisticated, dipping between serious, formal intonations of leading a proud and powerful India to economic and regional independence (Gandhi references included), and light-hearted colloquial anecdotes about his modest upbringing and successful work in Gujarat.
#ModiInAmerica had a three word subtitle: Unity. Action. Progress. But I think the event is better summed up by the three most frequent audience-wide chants:
Modi! Modi! Modi!
The first of these chants, reverberating throughout the entire arena during almost every moment of silence or break, was Bharat Matakijai!, loosely translated as “Hail to Mother India!” Highly patriotic, this phrase epitomized the nationalism and new pride in India that was central to both Modi’s speech and his presence in America. “For the first time in thirty years, you have won,” Mr. Modi told his audience, marking a breaking point from the Congress Party-led India of the past. Mr. Modi emphasized that he would help create an India that no one needed to feel ashamed of, citing “black magic” and “snake charmers” as what the world previously thought of India. Mr. Modi repeated that in his India there would be no more outdated, redundant laws (“If I destroy one law a day, that’s a good day for me!”) and no more visa struggles for ex-pat Indians trying to visit home. Mr. Modi also praised new technological developments and positive economic trends that he has introduced.
An effective and personally enjoyable moment came when Modi described how an auto-rickshaw costs 10 rupees/kilometer in his hometown of Ahmedabad, Gujarat (also Mahatma Gandhi’s hometown). Recently, India sent a spacecraft to Mars at only 7 rupees/kilometer. The total budget for the Mars mission was less than the budget for the Hollywood film Gravity. It is worth noting that the Mars spacecraft was launched in 2013, when the Congress Party, the “India of the past” was still in power. Mr. Modi, prompting the audience, ended his speech with his own chants of “Bharat Matakijai!” crystallizing his message by directly telling the largely Indian-American immigrant audience that like Gandhi, who returned to India from South Africa, they should return to India and repay the “loan” they had taken from India when they grew up in that country.
The second chant, “Jai Hind," or Victory to Hindustan/India, also filled Madison Square Garden, often louder than the applause. Jai Hind is similar to Bharat Matakijai; they are both exclamatory tributes to India the country. However,“Hind” is an abbreviation of “Hindustan,” a term which became popular during the partition of British India in order to distinguish India, land for the Hindus, from Pakistan, land for the Muslims. The term is now used interchangeably with Bharat, but still carries a faintly religious connotation.
Similarly, the event and Modi’s speech also hinted at Hinduism, which is unsurprising given Mr. Modi’s political party, the BJP, is the right-wing Hindu-dominated party in India. Mr. Modi and many of his supporters in the audience all wore deep saffron, the traditional Hindu color. The event started with an auspicious Hindu prayer, and Mr. Modi began his speech by describing the Hindu festival of Navaratri, for which he was fasting. Even some of the governmental policies he mentioned were wrapped in religion—such as the cleaning of the holy Ganges River. While Mr. Modi never talked extensively about religion, it was clear that the Hindu religion would be prominently visible in a Modi-led India. As troubling reports of recent religious clashes from Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat flood in, old divisions threaten the stability of Modi’s new India.
The last chant, by far the most frequent, was of course “Modi! Modi! Modi!” One of the central themes of the event was the image and presence of the rockstar: Mr. Modi himself. Long before he entered the arena, images of Modi were prolific. Almost all of the 18,000 audience members wore shirts with his face on it. At one point, a painter came onto the stage and began painting Modi’s face on a large easel, upside down, so that when he flipped it right side up, the audience went wild. And while Mr. Modi’s speech was addressed to Indian-Americans and focused on his vision of a new India, the speech was equally about himself as India’s leader. The many references to Mahatma Gandhi were used as a means of portraying Mr. Modi as India’s new “independence”leader. Though Gandhi was also from Gujarat and, like Modi, gained his support and power from the people, their political philosophies and path to fame are radically different. Gandhi was secular in his outlook, and was often opposed by the dominant Hindu-majority philosophy to which Mr. Modi’s party belongs.
Perhaps the real genius of Modi in America was his ability to attract and captivate an auditorium of 18,000 people from all across the United States, with stories of his humble upbringing and political vision, when, ironically, there was little humility in the “concert” held at Madison Square Garden that warm Sunday morning. Mr. Modi and his party certainly deserve praise and celebration for their stunning historic victory over the Congress Party in the last election. However, the “cult of personality” vibes from the event were somewhat worrisome.
Modi came in with two priors of common knowledge. On the "pro" side, his ingenious and innovative economic handling of Gujarat. On the "con" side, his disastrous passivity during previous religious riots in Gujarat. However, to me, Mr. Modi now has a new strength which is also his weakness: his ability to mesmerize. Having tens of thousands of people chanting an individual's name simultaneously with a country’s name can have mixed results. Modi has the ability to draw the youth out of the cynicism that has dominated politics world-wide. He can rally the people of India, and indeed around the world, to take action and support or question new government policies—the government can truly be held accountable. On the flip side, such collective admiration might calcify into group-think or lead to a suppression of dissent.