Millennium Post
Global Eye

King of diplomatic bling

He spoke about neighbourly cooperation, multilateralism, dialogues with Pakistan, strict approach to counter terrorism, idea of a smart city, his vision of a cleaner India, importance of G platforms in furthering ties, significance of UN peacekeeping, trying to fulfill the promise of reforming the UN Security Council and allow entry for developing countries like India, and last but not the least, yoga! It was a free-wheeling, meandering speech that received a standing ovation not exactly for its outstanding viewpoints but for the simplicity with which Modi etched out India’s role on the international dais. It was firm, however. Observers commented how Modi had Indianised his delivery, kept in mind the three-million Indian Americans, many of whom were waiting for him at Central Park and who would throng Madison Square Garden the next day. Modi also, in broad brushstroke, neutralised Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s insistence on the Kashmir problem.

While Sharif sounded bitter, Modi struck a comely chord, as if he was least flustered by his Pak counterpart’s acerbic tone, even though bilateral talks on the sidelines of UNGA were called off after Pak incursions along Kashmir border gave no sign of coming down.

Evidently, sophistication lay in his ability spell out clearly the convoluted Indian narrative. Owning up to India’s many problems, the challenges of sanitation, water and land pollution, literacy, healthcare, infrastructure, climate of investment, among others, Modi said he was a chaiwallah, a small man, who dared to dream big. Yes, that was the same old template he had successfully sold during his year-long election campaign, but he knew it wasn’t past his sell-by date just yet. The rags-to-riches theme, the fairy tale of ultimate success, was exactly what America trades in. Be it a Steve Jobs, or a Satya Nadella, a Barack Obama or a Mark Zuckerberg, the bildungsroman of capitalism and democracy could always do with some more. Add to that pantheon, India’s Narendra Modi.

It was obviously a cunning twist to the old theme of India being the cradle of civilisation, nursing an ancient continuity, carrying in its womb a golden past when it was light years ahead of its European counterparts in both material and cultural riches. But wallowing in the past had become a bad habit of Indians, Modi warned, adding history was not an excuse for the present and future.

Perhaps, Modi is the first truly postcolonial Prime Minister of India, whose stakes are in creating the future than in straddling the past. Even though he constantly appropriates histories and legacies, chiefly of freedom struggle stalwarts and fine leaders of independent India (such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, among others), and frequently attempts to denude the Nehru-Gandhi family of its hallowed lineage, Modi, in effect, offers a glorious future, full of technocratic shindig like bullet trains and smart cities, even when the railways incur losses and cities drown in periodic floods.

But in the theatre of Modimania, lubricated by a well-oiled and technosavvy public relations team, such obfuscations are the rule of the game. The UNGA speech harped on yoga as a healthcare solution when cancer drugs just doubled their price, while a top government agency was robbed of its powers to control prices of essential and non-essential drugs. Was Modi covertly softening India’s stance on the drug price and patent battle with US-led Big Pharma, while peddling that cultural export yoga, now as ubiquitous in the West as chicken tikka masala or chicken curry?

The Modi rhapsody reached its crescendo evidently at the Madison Square Garden event, where just under 20,000 Indian-Americans threw a party-cum-cultural gala in the honour of the Indian strongman. Frenzied media contingents from India covered 24X7 what Modi did in the United States, but it was astonishing even for them to hear ‘Modi, Modi’ chants in the streets of Manhattan. White Americans, slightly awed but reluctantly accepting Modi’s rockstar status among their brown-skinned brethren, took the traffic snarls in spirit.

According to The Economist, ‘Inside (Madison Square Garden) were over 18,000 Indian-Americans, as prosperous and upstanding a diaspora as you will find from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. They are 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.’ Evidently, despite the veiled ridicule, there was an overwhelming sense of disbelief at Indian-American worship of Narendra Modi, as if starved of an icon they could idolise, and President Barack Obama now becoming a spent force, the brown Yankees had latched on to the Indian Prime Minister.

What transpired there on 28 September would remain firmly etched in the hearts and minds of three million Indian Americans and the 1.2 billion Indians who saw the programme live on television. The hashtag #ModiinAmerica trended on Twitter, while his non-resident Indian cheerleaders, dressed in T-shirts with the slogan ‘Unity, Action, Progress’ written on them, clapped as ‘Jai Ho’, the OST from the global blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire merged seamlessly with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA.’ Bollywood fusion music and dance were performed, and a giant screen perched in the centre beamed Modi’s image, as an artist live-painted a portrait as the musical duo, Kavita Krishnamurti and L Subramaniam, kept the audience in rapture, building up for the big show: Modi’s speech.

That floodlit spot, where badasses of rock such as Mick Jagger had strung their guitars, moulded around Modi like water in a pot. The crowd went mad, it was hysterical to say the least. Here was another tick in the Modi checklist. Madison was Modi-fied, even before he had uttered a word. If somebody knew how to arouse passions and inflame sentiments, it was him. He was the James Cameron of politics and he knew it.

He takes this opportunity to showcase his sanitation drive, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; asks the well-heeled Indian-Americans to not just send home more dollars, but go back and invest. Revisit their homeland oftener.

Naturally, he showers them with gifts: life-long visas, merging of PIO and OCI categories, easier customs, even visa-on-arrival. American desis lose it again: they ignore the number of US congressmen and senators, who by now, have comfortably withdrawn into their roles as stage props, lending an American dignity to this stupendously Bollywoodesque gala. If anyone of the American lawmakers had anything to do with opposing Modi during the nine-year-long visa ban, they hid it well, stoically putting up with the show.

What Modi managed to do in Madison Square Garden was really two-fold. One part of it was injecting into brown, Indian-Americans a lost love for Mother India, which, about ten years back they had rejected as filthy and unmentionable. Prominent politicians like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal or South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and even the top advocate Preet Bharara, brush their Indian roots under the thicken carpet of al-American identity, perceiving it to be a career threat. Others oscillate between an underserving hate and unwarranted nostalgia, conveniently invoking India culturally, but shunning it politically or entrepreneurially.

However, a crossover culture has been slowly making its presence felt, mostly driven by third-generation desis, including artistes and writers, businessmen and teachers, doctors and engineers, who freely float from one country to another answering the calls of their economic destinies. Modi gave this hitherto flimsy, soft bridge the cementing of economic incentives and a political clarion call.
Before boarding the plane to Washington, Narendra Modi had ensured he gave the American desis the dream of recreating a new identity, and from a model minority, fashion their financial affluence along the axes of transnational dual-core patriotism, waving the Stars and Spangles with as much ease as the Tricolour.

With Indian-Americans conquered, Narendra Modi set out to meet the US president. If there’s a true foil to the vernacular cool of the Indian Prime Minister, it undoubtedly is the superlatively educated poise of Barack Obama.

The former has a chip in his shoulder: he is after all a man of lower class origin in a country still ridden with caste battles and discrimination. The latter wears his blackness with ease: in fact, the Obamas give every white political dynasty in the United States a run for their symbolic capital, excelling in class, education, style and the quintessential American dream of making it big. They are a family of highly fashionable super achievers: husband, wife, daughters, pet dog.

Modi, on the other hand, is single. (Oh he was married once, but he left his wife to follow his dreams in politics. Though he admitted to being officially married in an election affidavit in April this year.) While the Obamas flaunt marital potency and sexual capital, Modi’s appeal is almost celibate, even though he’s a rage among women from all age brackets.

With two kinds of alpha maleness in contention for the alpha alpha tag, it was expected to be a crackling rendezvous. However, it turned out to be a polite affair.

The US First Lady gave it a miss, but the President greeted the Indian PM in traditional Gujarati. ‘Kem chho?’ (Howdy?), Obama asked, breaking the ice. They penned a joint editorial in The Washington Post that was as boring and as official sounding as a government draft, in stark contrast to their sharp oratory, much-lauded rhetorical skills.

As Obama sipped red wine, Modi drank warm water (it was the Navratri fast, and Modi is a practicing Hindu). And somewhere behind the photo-ops, we knew this was going to remain a slightly hesitant connection. A reluctant show camaraderie compelled by the diplomatic and economic contingencies. Trade will dictate ties, as always. Security advisors and foreign secretaries will hold robust meetings.
Deals will be signed, but both Modi and Obama will not a twinkling in the eyes for each other, even though they wowed the middle classes in the other country, giving them a political godhead in each other.    
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