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Monday, June 27, 2022

Indians of New York

For the diaspora, Modi can make miracles happen.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
September 30, 2014 12:09:25 am
This sense of disbelief, hope and a wondrous new idea of being Indian is what has defined the prime minister’s first visit to a country that, till just the other day, treated him like a pariah. This sense of disbelief, hope and a wondrous new idea of being Indian is what has defined the prime minister’s first visit to a country that, till just the other day, treated him like a pariah.

For the diaspora, Modi can make miracles happen.

On the morning that Narendra Modi was to arrive in New York, I waited with his supporters on a pavement outside the Palace Hotel. They bore placards with his picture and shouted “har, har Modi” and “Vande Mataram”. Their fervour was so intense that policemen in the process of securing 50th street for the prime minister’s arrival walked over from time to time to warn the slogan shouters and placard wavers to stay within the cordon. They waited for hours on that hot day full of blue skies and white sunlight. When he finally arrived and got out of his car to greet them, they looked at him with disbelief and reverence.

This sense of disbelief, hope and a wondrous new idea of being Indian is what has defined the prime minister’s first visit to a country that, till just the other day, treated him like a pariah. The most powerful manifestation of these emotions was in Madison Square Garden, where the Indian community arranged for him the sort of reception only rock stars get. Those who did not manage to get tickets to enter New York’s most famous stadium waited outside in Times Square to try and catch a glimpse of the prime minister. Among the Indians, there were Tibetans and Nepalese, and when I asked them why they were there, they said it was because they believed that Modi had the power to change India and that this change would affect everyone.


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Inside the vast, storied stadium the atmosphere was magical. There were strobe lights, music and dancers, and through it all, cries of “Vande Mataram” and “Modi, Modi, Modi”. In the two hours we waited for the prime minister to arrive, the hysteria reached such fever pitch that it felt as if we waited for a divinity to manifest itself. When he finally arrived, the crowd went mad. In my long years as a political journalist, I have never seen a politician greeted in this way and Modi seemed humbled by it. He said towards the end of one of his best speeches ever, “You have given me a lot of love and made me indebted to you for this. I will pay back this debt by building the India of your dreams”.

I arrived in New York on an afternoon of rain and grey skies, the day before the prime minister was due to arrive. On that first day, I met Indian friends who have been New Yorkers for decades. They told me that although Modi was likely to get a hero’s welcome this time, there would be protests because there were many people who continued to think of him as a monster. But they admitted that it had been wrong of the American government to have denied him a visa because on those grounds, Rajiv Gandhi should have been disqualified as well. And, as someone who has often been in New York at this time of year and seen the worst kind of despots, dictators and tyrants giving speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, I have always found it hard to see the point of the ban.

The next day, India Today organised a daylong meeting on India’s future at The Pierre, which now belongs to the Taj group. Eminent economists like Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya spoke, as did political leaders from India and the United States, and in coffee breaks between sessions I learnt that there was “huge disappointment” among American investors because Modi’s ministers had failed to turn up at a major investors’ conference. My informants said, “It is typical of Modi that he wouldn’t let his ministers come. He wants to handle everything himself because he is such a control freak.” This kind of comment comes often from Indian journalists who misread not just Modi, but even the election results and now resent the distance at which the prime minister keeps them. There are more than a hundred Indian journalists in New York but they have not had a chance to get anywhere near Modi.

The closest I got to him personally was on the morning of his second day, when he went to pay his respects at the 9/11 memorial. I woke at dawn and walked down Madison Avenue in semi-darkness to the Palace Hotel, where a small group of sleep-deprived journalists gathered at the media centre. Security precautions meant that we had to travel together in the same bus. We arrived at the memorial two hours before the prime minister and I, who had last been here in October 2001, was deeply moved by the names engraved in dark granite on the walls of deep ponds filled with running water. They have been built in the place where there was once a vast gash in the ground, marking where the twin towers stood.

When the prime minister came, he was led to a spot where the names of Indians who died in 9/11 were engraved. Upon these names, he placed yellow roses and bowed his head. We were close enough to make eye contact but got no chance to speak to him. When he was led on a tour of the 9/11 museum we were taken to the “survivor tree”, where he went later to lay a wreath. This pear tree was burned badly in the attack and all that was left on it was a single leaf. It was nurtured back to life as a symbol of the human spirit.

As the prime minister laid his wreath, shouts of “Modi, Modi, Modi” suddenly came from behind us, along with cries of “Vande Mataram”. They came from a group of young Indians, and he went up to them and greeted them with a namaste. I talked to them afterwards and they said they had driven all the way from Maryland to try and catch a glimpse of the prime minister. When I asked what they liked about him so much they said, “He has brought back hope for us. We believe that he will change India and this is why we are here.”

Later that day, I caught up with Barkha Dutt. She asked me to join a panel to discuss the prime minister’s speech to the UN. Her “studio” was a small, windy balcony on the 18th floor of the Benjamin Hotel, where she gathered together intellectuals, both Indian and foreign, to discuss whether Modi would get India to play a bigger international role. And we talked of other such “intellectual” things that perhaps have nothing to do with why Narendra Modi has become the first Indian prime minister to get a full mandate in 30 years. That happened because ordinary Indians, tired of cynical politics and cynical politicians, saw in him someone who was different. The emotions of the diaspora in New York were no different at all from the reactions I saw among ordinary people in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and in the ancient streets of Varanasi during the election campaign. They see Modi as a symbol of hope. They believe that he can make miracles happen. They believe he can walk on water.

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