What a change a few months make! It seemed like just yesterday when, at the country level, India and the US were fanning diplomatic fires thanks to Devyani Khobragade and her maid. The tit for tat sought to avenge the ‘insult’ through both diplomatic retributions as also petty actions like removing security barricades outside the US Embassy.
On a more personal level, for a few years Narendra Modi was persona non grata in the US and was famously denied a visa for his alleged role in preventing loss of life in the Gujarat riots. And then, he just won the world’s largest election to become Prime Minister! That seemed to alter everything with the US political establishment. Critics seemed to become friends, media literally created a messiah out of Modi, the business community adored him, he got rock start reception... He could do no wrong in those five days.
Rock star reception...
Whether they were political leaders, businessmen, Indian community members, students … every group seemed to walk away feeling excited and impressed. Look at the variety: he addressed the United Nations speaking about terrorism and calling for an International Yoga Day. He then mingled with several famous rock singers and Hollywood stars to address 65,000 young people in New York’s Central Park and spoke about non-sexy topics like health, sanitation and world peace. He hadn’t even met President Obama yet. When he did - for a private dinner - he just sipped warm water continuing his Navarathri fast over the entire US visit.
Modi held centre court from a rotating platform at Madison Square Garden (a huge stadium) where around 20,000 delirious invitees (including more than 40 senior US lawmakers) lapped up every word he said. It’s not everyday that an Indian politician’s speech has warm up acts -like Bollywood dances to L Subramaniam - Kavita Krishnamurthy music.
The Jazzed up diaspora...
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State was impressed enough to acknowledge publicly that he would have “never gotten the rock-star reception” that Modi got at the Madison Square Garden. CEOs of global companies like GE, Google and Pepsi had one -on-one meetings. Even the Clintons (with possibly an eye towards the potential ‘Hilary for President’ scenario) wanted to shake hands and pose for pictures with Modi. Politics certainly has a strange way of creating friendships - at least suffering them with a smile. What was even more amazing was the fact that the average Indian in the US (especially the US Citizens of Indian origin) were really jazzed up. After admiring the eloquence of many western leaders and their informality, after a long time over there was a feeling of pride an Indian elected leader saying the right things, even being able to communicate beyond prepared statements and carry the audiences with him. These makes me remember someone else who came from modest beginnings, is a wonderful communicator, has big ideals, got the country and the youth excited about possibilities and had a global following. Barack Obama - if you are still guessing.
It is hard to ignore the parallel between Obama and Modi. They seemed suddenly to be thrust into national level leadership in democracies without being from a ‘political dynasty;’ they leveraged social media and connected with the youth incredibly well, have bold visions, are good communicators. Going one up on Obama, Modi actually has also been CEO of a state and understood actual political / operational arts of administration.
Like Obama was in his early years as President, Modi is well regarded globally and has made all the right impressions. Modi needs now to avoid making the mistakes that President Obama did. Consolidating the political gains made is an important area to forge ahead with many of the necessary development tasks ahead of him.
With the new friendship with the US, he can always check with President Obama on what NOT to do also.