The career of Narendra Modi whets the appetite of any anthropologist. The way the man has been transformed from a roadside bully and a riot suspect to a statesman, a leader of the developing nations, is fascinating to watch. Even his opponents watch with despair as he amplifies his power while they self-destruct. My old friends call me a pussyfooter for watching his rise with awe and fear. But my anxiety is not about pussyfooting but about the jackboots that might follow. The Madison Square Garden performance on Sunday was one example of such an event.
Superbly organised, brilliantly orchestrated, Mr Modi captured the hearts of the diaspora. Content did not matter. He led an army of clichés but each cliché, like a little corporal, had life enough to do its job. Mr Modi left to a standing ovation. No Roman general at a circus could feel happier. This was a triumphant march to statesmanship.
An American Congressman in a TV interview summed it up when he observed, “I have never seen such a response to an Indian PM. Where will you get over 30 Congressman and senators to play props, without uttering a single line at Madison Garden?” The surprise, the awe was real. Every major news channel had its best anchors parked like touts waiting for every information opportunity. The submissiveness of the media to the Modi script was intriguing. They were more part of the bandwagon, joining in the enthusiasm, seeing it as a performance. There was little sense that policy and strategy are a backstage affair where brownie points are counted months, even years later. But the media realised that the Modi regime was a theatre state and its performative efforts were part of policy.
The enthusiasm of the diaspora was obvious. It was not an ethnic affair. TV anchors asking, “How many of you are Gujaratis?” did not cut much ice. This was a diasporic coming-out parade and it worked like clockwork. It was clear that three million Indian-Americans were flexing their power, parading their success and Mr Modi played to the gallery by thanking them. He produced all kinds of waivers around visas and the crowd went home content with the goodies he offered. He almost presented himself like one of them. Only, he had followed the American dream in India, in running the course from tea seller to PM.
He was the Indian Horatio Alger who worked as hard as any diasporic. He played to their nostalgia, their sense of home and homeliness. He promised he would make their dreams come true in India. A spectator watching the roars of acclamation could have thought that here was a new party being launched to challenge both Republican and Democrat. As the ceremony’s anchor remarked also deprecatingly, “Remember, this is not a campaign. He has already been elected”. The humour was lost on the crowd.
Mr Modi arrived and the crowd erupted with joy. Delighted to see themselves on screen, their delight at this recognition made one sense that this was a coming-of-age moment for the diaspora, mirroring itself at Times Square. It was a debutant’s ball for a whole diaspora who were preening with pride. As one informant put it, “We work hard, we have family values, we are educated and as our Congressman put, ‘we do not even ask for help’”.
It is a diaspora talking with pride because it senses that Mr Modi’s new India shares its urge for success. Mr Modi, they feel, is one of them.
Before Mr Modi arrived, we got a dose of culture beautifully packaged. There was a classic piece of family life, musical competence and patriotism enacted by L. Subramaniam. As Kavita Krishanmurthy belted out I love my India, the tears of Indians in America echoed the sentiment. As they sang Jana Gana Mana, Madison Square rocked to a great piece of patriotic music. The rockstar of the day followed and the crowd sensed he was tired but game, at home in the group, ready to pull deftly at emotional strings. By the end of his speech, a string of clichés and repetitions, Mr Modi had them belting out “Bharat Mata Ki…,” making spectators wonder where their loyalty lay. One realises the inversion. The diaspora is now primary and it is India that is catching up.
Mr Modi added that he is a small man interested in small things, like punctuality and sanitation. He added that the previous regime would boast repeatedly about enacting new laws, while his regime is eliminating old, irrelevant laws. Such fragments of governance go down well with the diaspora. Mr Modi, like them, smells of modernity, efficiency and decisiveness.
Mr Modi treated himself deprecatingly. He remarked that media at home is excited that the bureaucracy is coming on time, and he asked: “Should this be news?” The PM was mirroring the values of Indians abroad.
The moves are adept and, even if repetitive, add to the consensus of approval around him. He echoes his earlier speeches and the audience echoes the approval that follows. As the performance ends, our anchors are convinced that India has a rockstar, a statesman it can be proud of. The whole show was so tightly stitched together that there was little time for reflection or critique.
Social media, never to be put down, added a few comments to the general celebration. Mr Modi commented that a scooter ride in Ahmedabad costs Rs 10 a kilometre and then added that the Mars mission cost only Rs 7 per km. The glee was obvious.
There was, however, a social media footnote which said that the diaspora spent more than Rs 10 a km to see Mr Modi at Madison Square.
It was a day of sentiment, a bit like a Bollywood enactment. Maybe foreign policy and cinema have a lot in common. But as one waits for Mr Modi to meet Barack Obama, there’s hope that that script will be different, more business-like. Politics needs to return to the everyday and strategic.