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No big fat NRI rally for the PM in Bangladesh? Modi to play it safe

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes to Dhaka he will eschew one of his signature moves – the big fat NRI rally. Radhika Ramaseshan reports in The Telegraph that the PMO has decided it “did not wish to make a move that could possibly fuel social tensions and affect our bilateral relationship.”

The optics of a largely Hindu crowd meeting Modi in a country where Sheikh Hasina is trying to crack down on the Jamaat-e-Islami without losing her own Muslim credentials could easily prove problematic. What could make it even more awkward is Modi’s party BJP has long tom-tommed the fact that India is the “natural home” for Hindus.

 No big fat NRI rally for the PM in Bangladesh? Modi to play it safe

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Modi himself while on the campaign trail, went to Assam and said, “We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them… we will have to accommodate them here.” If the Hindus of Bangladesh seek an audience with him and hold him to his words, that could leave the Indian delegation quite red-faced.

Modi had already turned down an interaction with the Tamils of Jaffna in Sri Lanka for the same reason. It makes sense. Ultimately no matter how popular he is among the diaspora, the PM is a guest of another government. And he cannot outshine his host.

There is a huge difference between a reception versus a rally at Madison Square Garden. When Modi visited the US, the demand for him was so huge, the decision was taken to book Madison Square Garden. No conference room was big enough for his jumbo-sized appeal. But the upshot was the uncomfortable feel of an election victory rally in someone else’s country. All those deliriously excited flag-waving NRIs and PIOs made for a great ego boost for the PM and was lapped up by the audience at home in India, but it made for a rather peculiar spectacle abroad. “Remember he’s already elected. It’s beginning to sound like a campaign rally,” the emcee, Indian American news anchor Hari Sreenivasan told the crowd chanting "Modi Modi" at Madison Square Garden.

If Obama had come to India and decided he wanted to address a mammoth crowd at Ram Lila Maidan complete with song and dance entertainment that would surely raise eyebrows here. Or if Modi decided to address the Hindus in Bangladesh in Dhaka it could open the door for a Sheikh Hasina to address the Muslims of India in Kolkata and that could open quite the can of worms. There is also the precedent he is setting. It's one thing to address the well-heeled Indian diaspora in the US but will he put on the same jamboree for the large Indian blue collar diaspora in the Middle East? Or like the PIO/OCI card originally would there be a pecking order between the NRIs we like and the NRIs we tolerate?
So all in all it’s a little more diplomatic to play it a bit low-key instead of reveling in diasporan love, something the Prime Minister clearly enjoys.

One could say that in fact he enjoys it a little too much. It is while he is abroad that Narendra Modi seems to let down his guard. Most of his gaffes have happened while addressing NRI audiences. In India he seems to be much more careful with his words now that he is Prime Minister. But once he goes abroad the PM lets his hair down. He beats drums, plays the flute and gives out Gitas. He expounds at length and occasionally gets carried away. That’s why he got into trouble for dissing the UPA scam-years to the NRIs of Canada and for telling the diaspora in Seoul “There was a time when people used to say we don’t know what sins we committed in our past life that we were born in Hindustan.” It’s irrelevant whether what he said accurately reflected what his audience felt or not. It’s just bad form to bad mouth your predecessors abroad as if you were on the campaign trail in India because while abroad you are the representative of your entire country not just your party. George W Bush and Barack Obama have severe differences with each other when it comes to policy and world view, but while abroad they maintain a discreet silence about each other. Even House speaker John Boehner, no friend of Obama’s, said when Obama is overseas “it’s appropriate the people not be critical of him or our country.”

Narendra Modi however seems to really revel in his reception abroad. It affirms something within him. He somehow feels more at home abroad which is perhaps why he has made so many trips in one year. Pundits have been impressed how at ease he is outside India in the corridors of power in the world. Modi clearly wants his image abroad to be a projection of his vision of a more confident India and the diaspora is elated. In a way Modi absolves them of some of that gnawing guilt of having left India. Modi flatters and stokes their pride, thanks them for their support and tells the audience he is in their debt. When he went to the US all he asked of the NRIs was that they persuade five non-India families to visit India. They need to sell India more than sacrifice for India. And the audience cheers lustily.

Modi has shown a great penchant for diplomacy and has impressed observers who did not think he would have such a natural flair for it. Now this latest decision shows that the PMO has realized that sometimes being diplomatic is actually all about not seizing the spotlight. Everything does not have to be Instagrammed and selfied.

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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2015 10:23:49 IST

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