In what will almost certainly be the highlight of his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed tens of thousands of madly cheering Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Indian-American community supported Modi before many Indians back home did, and it remains among his fiercest backers. They were thus rewarded with one of the prime minister’s most crowd-pleasing speeches, and with easier visa rules – as well as a more coherent promise of reform than he has delivered at any point since assuming office.
Comparing the task of India’s development to the freedom movements, he pointed out that the independence movement only became successful once it became a mass movement under Mohandas Gandhi. Every Indian then, he said, worked towards freedom. The PM then said that he wanted to do the same for the development process as Gandhi had for the freedom movement. “So far, governments have taken out a contract for development”, he said, but under him it was understood that it was the people who would have to take the lead.
In some ways, it was a follow-up to several of Modi’s earlier speeches: both the recent speech from Red Fort on Independence Day, when he had stressed citizens’ involvement in crucial policy activism, such as to sanitation. But there were even echoes of speeches from much earlier, such as the one he delivered to students at Shri Ram College of Commerce that launched him as the front-runner for the prime ministerial position. In this speech, as in that one, there was a reference to India’s pool of young people, its talent – and there were even identical jokes, of India becoming a nation of “mouse-charmers” from one of snake-charmers.
It is clear, too, that the PM has been stung by accusations that he has no “grand vision”. This speech was the second time recently that he responded to this claim, saying again that he was but a “small person”, a former tea vendor, and his focus was on improving the life of such “small people”.
As to how he would do that, the PM presented the clearest statement of a reform agenda that he has so far. Following on from his sarcastic reference to government being a “contractor” for India’s development, he said that “previous governments took pride in making one law after another”. That was, in fact, he said – in a clear dig at the rights-based schemes of the previous government – “their entire election campaign”. But, Modi added, “My plan is different. It is to get rid of all the old and useless laws.” He promised Indian-Americans, if they were to return to India to invest, that there would be “no more running from pillar to post to deal with the government… I tell you, those days are gone.”
“Ease of business” would be a priority, he said, using a rare English phrase. “If I can get rid of one law a day, then I’ll be the happiest of men.”
Much of the rest of Modi’s promises, however, will have left observers less sanguine. He spoke of the Mars mission as being an example of low-cost manufacturing and not of precision engineering; and followed that with a promise to be the source of the world’s low-wage workforce. He also promised that every Indian would own a house by 2022, which will have given rise to questions as to how the government intends to intervene to ensure that happens, and whether a badly governed and regulated real-estate sector is up to achieving the target.
But the reform promises were no doubt secondary as far as most observers and attendees were concerned. What was far more important was the fact of Modi’s presence in New York – the subtle irony of him offering easier visas to citizens of a country that had denied him a visa for nine long years was lost on few. The crowd – many of whom walked in waving large saffron flags – clearly saw Modi’s arrival as a fulfilment of a long-nurtured dream, and a source of ethnic pride. The presence of 41 members of the US Congress from Indian-heavy districts, who stood on stage waiting for him as if they were courtiers, only enhanced the symbolism of the moment; for Indian-Americans, it was a victory against an American establishment that had unfairly denied them their hero for a decade, and was now forced to acknowledge him in public.
Modi, the consummate politician, understood their mood. He began slowly, built up to promises that he would not disappoint – again, it seems he has indeed been reading the op-ed pages, in spite of claims that he does not – and ended with the sort of emotional-religious- nationalist pitch that brings your average Indian-American to his feet. On this occasion, it was a demand that Indian-Americans help in cleaning up the Ganga – both a religious and an economic priority, the PM said. Pious praise of cleanliness allowed him to again don Gandhi’s mantle, for the second time in one speech. The heady mix of religion, nationalism, promises, pride and history is what Indian-Americans most desire; and it is exactly what Prime Minister Modi does best.