Narendra Modi at Madison Square: Promises goodies to spoiled NRIs
The audience at Madison Square Garden was eating out of Narendra Modi's hands. But what was interesting was how little the PM asked of them in return. We are a long way from Kennedy's exhortation of ask not what you your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Narendra Modi would probably have gotten away with reading the Manhattan phone book from the revolving stage at Madison Square Gardens.
A capacity crowd usually comes to Madison Square usually comes with certain expectations – rousing vocals by Beyonce or a mind-blowing sitar performance by Ravi Shankar or a once-in-a-lifetime boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
This was different.
By becoming Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi had already fulfilled their expectations before he even set foot in Madison Square Gardens. This was a crowd that was already sold on the Modi-nama. For them the occasion was historic not for anything Modi had to say but because they wanted to see him in the flesh.
“Remember he’s already elected. It’s beginning to sound like a campaign rally,” quipped the emcee, PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan as the delirious crowd chanted "Modi Modi".
Modi delivered a trademark rousing speech – extempore, folksy, peppered with little jokes and alliterations, with some Mangalyaan bragging and some chaiwala self-deprecation. The audience was eating out of his hands. But what was interesting was how little the PM asked of them in return.
John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address said ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
But in its achhey din avatar, Modi told the cheering NRIs everything he would do for them. Visas on arrival.
No need to keep checking in at the police station for long-term stay in India. Removing all the confusion between OCI and PIO cards. Making the OCI card truly valid for a lifetime. He promised to build an India worthy of the diaspora’s dreams but did not ask for their blood, sweat or tears even as he set lofty goals – a clean India by 2019, a home for every Indian family by 2022.
Sacrifice or balidaan he reminded the audience was part of our national psyche. Even in the darkest period there was a mahapurush around to sacrifice for that country. But India’s first post-Independence born prime minister asked for no sacrifice from the NRI/OCI/PIO audience. That would have clearly been a buzz-kill. This was the NRI fantasy of Dr. King's I have a Dream speech but stripped of the suffering, the police dogs, the water hoses, the back-of-the-bus discrimination that is embedded at the heart of that speech. Freedom will ring from giant screens on Times Square and nothing's gonna stop us now.
Interestingly Modi chose to remind his audience of the upcoming centenary of India’s most famous ‘NRI’. In 1915 Mohandas Gandhi decided to return to India and then launched a jan andolan for azaadi. In 2015, Modi invited Indian Americans and Indians in America to put at least one foot back in India, to be part of jan andolan for vikaas. Even then they don’t have to inconvenience themselves too much. No foreign clothes will have to burned for this andolan, thank goodness. They could check out their options on MyGov website and give their suggestions there. They needed to sell India more than serve India. Every Indian-American could persuade 5 non-Indian families to visit India. And yes, there would be visa on arrival waiting for them.
The comparison with Gandhi is fascinating. Gandhi was coming back to India under British rule. Gokhale wanted him to join the Servants of India Society in Pune. He decided to spend a year in probation learning about India. One of the biggest lessons he had to learn was humility, that he did not have all the answers, and he would have to learn to do things in a way that fit India.
The stereotype of the “Ugly NRI” is quite the opposite – a portrait of self-entitlement, Mr. Money Bags who is also Mr. Know-it-all and sometimes more aggressively patrotic than the Indian in India. Note Rajdeep Sardesai gets roughed up not during the heated days of the campaign trail in India but in New York!
More than anything else the NRI is stereotyped as Mr. I-Want. The Overseas Friends of BJP’s list of demands reflects that - NRIs should be granted voting rights, an Aadhar card at Indian consulates, OCI cardholders should be able to buy 20 acres of land.
The Madison Square Garden event could have been a wake-up call for NRIs to get beyond that Mr. I-Want image.
But it remained a stage show reminiscent of every tacky NRI community function in some school gymnasium just blown up to Madison Square Garden-size. The only saving grace was we didn’t see long-winded speeches by every self-important NRI “achiever” who had given more than $1001.
But there was a little Gujarati folk dance, some AR Rahman, Kavita Krishanmurthy warbling Made in India, gushing videos and someone named Akshay Kapoor passing off as a well-known Bollywood actor who couldn’t manage his 30-seconds without a cheat-sheet.
All those years of Bollywood dance classes finally paid off and all the Indian Americans who performed can now, thanks to Modi-ji, put Madison Square Garden on their CVs while their mothers brag about it at the Diwali potluck. The event became a little fantasy bubble of India with very little that was Indian-American about it other than the accents of the emcees, the American national anthem and the rather surreal pairing of Jai Ho and Born in the USA which, dear organizers, is a song not about the American dream but about “being born down in a dead man’s town” with “nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Modi did nothing to puncture the NRI sense of self-entitlement. Instead he flattered it, stroking and stoking their pride, telling the audience he was in their debt, thanking them for all their work during the election, promising them a red carpet instead of red tape in India. His bag of giveaway goodies prompted big cheers even though in the scheme of things fusing the PIO card with the OCI card or making the latter truly lifelong (as it was initially meant to be) is hardly revolutionary. It's not dual citizenship.
Indians at home often have a lingering resentment for the Indian abroad, the one who got away to pursue the American dream and 3-bedroom home in Cupertino far away from the license raj. Or at least that is what the Indian abroad imagines Indians at home think about him.
Modi effectively absolves them of any guilt of the prodigal son. Remember the old emotional blackmail telegram to the errant son?
All forgiven. Come home. Mother critical.
The 2014 version that Modi sent out from Madison Square Garden was a little different.
Nothing to forgive. Put one foot in home. Achhey din are here. Come sign up.
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