Addressing the cheering crowd of about 20,000 Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) at the packed Madison Square Garden here on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the easing of travel and visa norms, including lifetime visas for Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).
Besides announcing the merger of PIO and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) schemes, Modi also said that a visa-on-arrival scheme for American tourists was in the pipeline. He said PIOs staying in India on long-term basis would no longer have to report to the local police station.
In his speech, in Hindi, Modi sought to strike an emotional chord with the Indian diaspora. He promised to build an India of their dreams and urged them to join him in this task. While he talked about his government’s Jan Dhan scheme and the recent success of the Mars mission, he used the opportunity to target the previous regimes, saying they had done little on several critical fronts.
Moving to one of his favourite themes — cleanliness, Modi highlighted his government’s plan to construct new toilets and clean the Ganga. He said many people told him that the toilets issue was a petty campaign, and cleaning the Ganga was an impossible task. “But people would not have made me the Prime Minister if I do not do difficult things…and if people think building toilets is a small thing, since I have begun life as a small man, I like to do small things… and big things for small people.’’
He thanked the Indian diaspora for helping him during his election campaign. “I have not had a chance to thank you yet. And let me tell you that I have not even taken a 15-minute break since taking over as Prime Minister,” he told the crowd, many of whom were wearing white T-shirts with his portrait, distributed along with the entry tickets.
Reiterating his “three Ds”, he said no other country in the world was fortunate enough to be a democracy, have the right demographic dividend and be a huge demand market. “It is development which has to become a mass movement in the country,” he said. Drawing attention to India’s young workforce, he said this should be “exported” to the world, especially the talented teachers and nurses.
The PM also said he would do away with one obsolete law every day, recalling how previous governments would frequently take pride in ensuring more and more complex laws.
As the crowd chanted, “Modi, Modi”, standing in a semi-circle on the stage were around 35 US Senators and Congressmen, including Charles Ellis “Chuck” Schumer (an anti-outsourcing votary), Joseph Crowley and Steny H Hoyer. Modi was set to hold consultations with them after his speech.
The Madison Square Garden event, organised by the Indian American Community Foundation (IACF), was unprecedented in scale for any Indian politician speaking overseas, and the protests staged outside the stadium by disparate groups seemed muted in comparison to the enthusiastic response inside. Interestingly, besides footage of Modi’s Gujarat days, the other clips being shown included videos of Indira Gandhi and Swami Vivekanand.
Earlier in the programme, which was anchored by Indian-origin Miss America Nina Davuluri, there were Gujarati folk dances and fusion music by Kavita Krishnamurthy and L Subramaniam. The stage was a rotating one, with a slow shift every few minutes, apparently to ensure that Modi would face each member of the audience at some point during the show.
With the much-hyped “reception” by the Indian community and yesterday’s high-voltage Global Citizen Festival at Central Park over, Modi will now get down to the more substantive part of his US visit. On Sunday itself, the Prime Minister has a bilateral consultation with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a meeting with prominent members of the Jewish community living in the US. On Monday, he will begin his crucial interactions with American business honchos, after which he will leave for Washington for his summit-level meeting with US President Barack Obama.