The two parts of one of the world’s largest mutual-admiration societies, long frustrated in their efforts to see each other in the flesh, came together Sunday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi thrilled to — and in turn enthralled — a gathering of about 20,000 members of the Indian diaspora.
Although he enjoys a reputation for being one of the greatest orators in Indian history, it would, in truth, not be fair to say that Modi wowed the audience with his usual rhetorically punchy and calculatedly spontaneous speech, mixed with both formal and colloquial Hindi. But that’s only because they were chanting a different version of “wow” — in this case, “MO-DI!” “MO-DI!” — long before he appeared on a rotating stage that allowed him to face every member of the audience during his 45-minute speech while conveying subliminally the sense of the Earth orbiting the sun.
The meeting was a long time coming. It had been nine years since he was denied an American visa in 2005, when he also had a speech scheduled at Madison Square Garden — and the emotions in 2014 were therefore more than just a little pent-up. All seemed impatient for the curtain-raiser of traditional Indian dances to end. Once the prime minister appeared in his trademark garb of kurta, pajama andNehru jacket, welcomed by a bevy of U.S. congressmen, it took only a few minutes for speaker and audience to melt into a long-awaited embrace.
Modi immediately complimented his audience for having helped change the world’s perception of India from that of a country of snake charmers to — and this was a nice touch, though it sounds a bit more forced in English — one now focused on the mouse (that is, computer hardware). And soon he was thanking them for their invaluable support during his campaign, despite their inability to vote thanks to Indian law.
Though Modi’s victory in May’s elections was the result of a “Modi wave” domestically, nowhere are his approval ratings higher than among Americans of Indian origin. His election war chest was plentifully buttressed by contributions from the U.S., and his particularly ingenious brand of nationalism appeals most powerfully to Indians comfortably settled abroad but nostalgic for the aroma of the hearth and long embarrassed by the motherland’s reputation for third-world dysfunction.
So it was no surprise that Modi told his audience how much he loved them. And then he told them how much they loved him, which should have had the effect of making him happy, but in this case seemed to make them even happier. “No Indian leader has ever received so much love,” he declared. “I will repay this debt by building the India of your dreams.”
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