Once shunned by the US, India's PM Narendra Modi received a rock star welcome in New York's Madison Square Garden. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW about how the premier is seeking to reshape India's image abroad.
The Indian PM Narendra Modi appeared before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 18,500 people from the US and Canada - mostly of Indian origin - in Madison Square Garden, New York's famed sport arena. Modi came into the auditorium under a spotlight, leading many to compare the event to a political rally, with the audience wearing T-shirts bearing his picture and periodically chanting "Modi! Modi!"
Ahead of his first White House summit on September 29, Modi - speaking in Hindi from a rotating stage - vowed that he would build a strong and confident India, and fight corruption. He also touted India's promise as a tech giant, joking that it was no longer known as a nation of "snake charmers." A day before, in his debut at the United Nations, the Hindu nationalist had presented a worldview shaped by ancient tradition, promoting multilateralism as well as yoga.
Modi is currently on a five-day visit to the United States aimed at improving bilateral ties which have seen some irritants over the past years, including the revocation of Modi's visa after the 2002 Gujarat riots where some 1000 people - many of them Muslims - were killed, and, more recently, the spat over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in the US and India's refusal to sign a global trade deal.
Kugelman: 'Modi's visit has surprised many Americans - including the members of Congress present at the Madison Square Garden event'
Michael Kugelman, South Asia analyst the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that the PM is using the US visit to send out the message that India is strong, ready to engage with the US, and that he has clearly moved on from the visa ban that aggrieved him for so many years. But despite the pageantry, there are many tricky issues which will have to be discussed and won't magically go away, he adds.
DW: How well has Narendra Modi been received in the US?
Michael Kugelman: The reaction to Modi has been nothing short of extraordinary. This is a leader who was effectively persona non grata in the US for nearly 10 years, and yet now he is speaking to huge and adoring crowds, and sharing stages with members of Congress and even the singer Jay-Z. It is a dramatic transformation. We should keep in mind, however, that most of these audiences are members of the Indian diaspora - a very large community that is a strategic source of support for Modi.
How has Modi been trying to charm American audiences and especially the Indian- American community?
I think he's trying to convince the diaspora that he is capable of righting the Indian ship, which has been slowly sinking in recent years - as evidenced above all by India's struggling economy, but also by unusually costly corruption scandals. Modi's message to this diaspora - which has voiced its anxieties about India's recent struggles - is that happy days are here again, and that he will make sure they stay happy for years on end.
But it hasn't just been rhetoric. Very significantly, Modi announced in his speech at Madison Square Garden in New York that he will implement a series of policies that make it much easier for Indian-Americans and Americans more generally to travel and visit India. If India's economy is to improve, it will need to facilitate foreign direct investment (FDI) in India, and FDI flows are dependent not only on flows of capital and goods, but also of people. These new announced policies will be very helpful in this regard.
Shortly before his arrival in the US, a federal court in New York summoned Modi to respond to a lawsuit accusing him of human rights abuses. How much has this cast a shadow over Modi's visit and what role does the issue of the 2002 Gujarat riots still play in bilateral ties?
A very small shadow at best, and at any rate an irrelevant shadow for Modi given that as prime minister, he will have immunity from any such legal challenges while he in the US. And yet the fact that this lawsuit will simply be shrugged off is another indication of how far Modi has come from pariah to celebrity in such a short time.
There have been a number of anti-Modi protests in New York - small in number yet still very much happening - and yet interestingly enough the Indian media, which is providing intense, minute-by-minute coverage of Modi's visit, has paid little attention to them.
There has also been a new revelation appearing in the Western press and circulated widely on social media that Modi allegedly refused to help a Muslim MP while he was surrounded by a Hindu mob and later killed. And yet, once again, this won't affect the PM's visit or the perception of him. In this regard, one must credit Modi's PR machine, which is operating on all cylinders throughout this visit and has resulted in very little critical accounts of him at all within the mainstream media.
What has been at the core of his message to American audiences?
The basic, fundamental message is that India is strong, and that India is ready to engage with Indian-Americans and the US more broadly.
What image is Modi presenting of himself while abroad?
A very similar message to the one he presents at home - that he is a tireless, determined, and patriotic leader who will do everything possible to get India back on track. He has also sought to project a softer side - perhaps to soften the perception that he is ultra-serious and stern and not afraid to upbraid his subordinates - by making jokes about his visa difficulties, calling for more focus on yoga, and even quoting lines from Star Wars.
In all of this, Modi is trying to do something very simple: Introduce himself to a general American public that really doesn't know him at all, given his inability to come to the US to engage with them for nearly 10 years.
How may this image and style help improve bilateral ties with the US, both politically and economically?
I think the visit has surprised many Americans - including the members of Congress present at the Madison Square Garden event - because it's not too often that a foreign leader, and particularly a brand new one, takes the country by storm by barnstorming the US' financial capital and being met by huge and adoring crowds. Since most Americans - other than Indian-Americans - probably knew very little about him, his visit likely impressed them as well.
How this all translates to the official level is a much more open question. US-India relations have certainly come a long way over the last few decades, but they have faced a raft of crises in recent months, and these won't be easy to overcome - even with the repository of goodwill for Modi now overflowing. Obama and Modi will need to discuss tricky and tension-filled issues - such as policies in each country that the other deems prohibitively protectionist - that won't magically go away.
What Modi's New York itinerary does show, however, is that he is ready to engage, and that he has clearly moved on from the visa ban that so aggrieved him for so many years. Forget all the pageantry and big crowds: The mere fact that he came to the US is a big achievement for the bilateral relationship. And it can also serve as a big confidence-building measure as Obama and Modi sit down to discuss some pretty serious issues.
Michael Kugelman is senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on South and Southeast Asia.