Beyond the razzmatazz how does one interpret Narendra Modi's address at New York's Madison Square Garden? Was this an ego trip for Modi, a celebration and a vindication after a decade of exile from a society he admires and has fond memories of? The United States is, after all, a country Modi has travelled to often as a private citizen.
On an International Visitors' Programme in the 1990s, his State Department hosts asked him which important Americans he would want to meet, convinced this then up-and-coming politician would ask to see policy-makers. Instead, Modi surprised them by requesting an audience with Neil Armstrong, an authentic American hero and a subject of fascination for Modi since that magical day on the moon.
As such, was Modi getting back at those forces that had kept him out of the US since 2005, and was he thanking those sections of Indians in America who had supported him? Certainly, there was an element of that. Yet, was that all there was to it?
Taking a long view, there appear to be two motivations for Modi: one tactical and the other strategic. The tactical purpose is easy enough to understand. Ever since he became Prime Minister, Modi has been attempting to talk up the national mood, to reverse the impression that the country had lost its way forever, or at least for the foreseeable future, that the despondency left behind by the UPA is impossible to address.
Modi has sought to infect public discourse with a fresh energy and a can-do spirit. The Madison Square Garden exercise essentially took that project to an international stage. It sought to inspire NRIs and PIOs, recognising, quite correctly, that these people shape perceptions about India in the society they live in.
The attempt to re-brand India, and present it as a country that is back in business, eager to make up for lost years and still in the race for success in the 21st century, needs to involve and convince the Indian diaspora. True, this is not enough. Others, including international business and the rest of the global community, have to be convinced as well. That apart, the work of the Modi government has to match the Prime Minister's words. Nevertheless, even if electrifying the diaspora is not sufficient, it is necessary.
The strategic motivation takes a somewhat wider perspective. Modi sees mobilisation of (segments of the) diaspora as important to build an international constituency that will speak up for him and his government, and become an interest group for India in Washington, DC.
The campaign against him in the past decade - that of the many, many Indian academics in leading American universities (not more than half-a-dozen leading names can be counted on to see his point of view) - has taught Modi a lesson. Faced with such hostility and propaganda, he needs a countervailing constituency.
To see this constituency in narrow electoral terms would be self-defeating. The diaspora cannot vote in an Indian election; only those who are Indian citizens can. However, the diaspora is a formidable social and economic group that can influence political decisions. This was evident in the period leading up to the Congressional vote on the India-US nuclear deal. It was hoped then that the nurturing of a diaspora political lobby would become a serious political objective in New Delhi. The UPA government lost interest. It would be ironical if Modi achieved it and took the diaspora mobilisation of the nuclear deal period to its logical conclusion.
The first ambassador to recognise the value of the Indian diaspora in the US was Nani Palkhivala, the eminent lawyer and constitutionalist who represented the Janata Party government in Washington, DC. In June 1979, as he was relinquishing office, Palkhivala held a reception at the Indian embassy. He honoured 14 outstanding achievers of Indian origin - including Hargobind Khorana and S. Chandrashekhar, past and future Nobel laureates - with a plaque commemorating the recipient as an "Exemplar of Excellence and Explorer of Brahma"
The ambassador's speech on the occasion, as quoted in M.V. Kamath's Nani A. Palkhivala: A Life (Hay House, 2007), is worth recalling. "India is poor in economic terms," Palkhivala said, "but rich in intellect, skills and the spirit of enterprise. Beyond question the largest concentration of Indian talent outside India is in the United States. This is not surprising, Heads go where hearts go - and opportunities in the United States have resulted in this country attracting and holding the largest pool of scientific and artistic creativity." He went on to ask members of the diaspora "to give a slice of your life to the land which gave you birth".
Palkhivala, a student of ancient Indian philosophy, was evocative in explaining why he named the diaspora prize after Brahma: "Brahma ... is the Ultimate Reality. Thousands of years ago, the intuitive seers of India understood that Brahma is far, far beyond what we perceive through our five senses ... In Brahma what Lord [C.P] Snow called the Two Cultures are synthesised, science becomes indistinguishable from art and the atom from the infinite. The Unified Theory for which Einstein searched so long is but one of the billion facets of Brahma ..."
In other words, Palkhivala sought to link the modern and technological achievements of Indians in the US to the profundity and sense of inquiry of India's age-old civilisation. Thirty-five years on, Modi has picked up that great patriot's mantle.
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