In the US, Modi changed India’s image, and his own.
The advantage of being a veteran in journalism is that it enables perspective. So with the privilege this gives me, I am going to examine for you Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States against the backdrop of visits by other Indian prime ministers to foreign lands. I feel the need to do this because of the number of people I have met in the past few days in New York and Washington who have asked how Modi has “such confidence, such sophistication”.
They speak not of the “sophistication” a certain genre of Indian takes pride in that allows them, for instance, to tell the difference between a Louis Vuitton bag and a Gucci. Nor of the kind of confidence that makes this same genre of Indian proud of speaking English perfectly while being unable to speak their own mother tongue. In the Modi context, what people mean by sophistication is the confidence with which he has dealt with complicated international issues on this visit. And, the confidence with which he has spoken of India’s flaws. The absence of toilets and sanitation, the filthy streets of our cities and the horrible pollution in our rivers.
“When people ask me what my vision is, I tell them I am just a chaiwallah, a small man who can only think of small things,” he said to thunderous applause in Madison Square Gardens. He then added that what he did know was that he wanted to do big things for small people. He listed his “safai abhiyan” and his determination to clean the Ganga among these big things. And, as I listened I thought of how different his language is to that of earlier prime ministers who spent their visits to foreign countries pretending that India had no flaws.
From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, they came to foreign capital cities and saw wide avenues and dazzling monuments and either from shame or false pride, reminded their hosts of India’s “ancient civilisation”, as if this compensated for her modern squalor. When they came back to India they did nothing to change the things that really matter. They did not build the roads or the sewage systems or ensure that our cities looked like real cities and not endless, ugly shanties. But, they were feted and honoured for holding “India’s head high in the comity of nations”. This was a remark Pupul Jayakar famously made about Indira Gandhi, but it was made of other prime ministers as well. It was made of Jawaharlal Nehru even when he begged the US to attack China when we started losing the war in 1962.
Natwar Singh writes in his memoir that as a junior official in the United Nations, he remembers the shame he felt when he delivered Nehru’s letter to John F. Kennedy. The discomfiture was enhanced by the disdain with which Nehru treated America when he came here just before the war with China. Kennedy described the visit as painful. Why has it taken Natwar Singh so long to write this? Why has it taken him so long to write in this same memoir that economic ideas “bored” Indira Gandhi? Could it be because he belonged to that same class of educated, westernised Indian who believed that India’s honour was safest in the hands of Indians educated in Oxford and Cambridge?
How ironic then that India’s least educated, most provincial prime minister has done more to change the way the world looks at India than any of his educated, “sophisticated” predecessors. Americans who have met the prime minister in New York and Washington speak of how clearly he understood complicated issues. They give examples. Modi has spoken of terrorism as a problem for all humanity. He has hinted that the Americans would be making a mistake by leaving Afghanistan too soon. When Pakistan’s prime minister tried to provoke him into the usual UN general assembly spat over Kashmir, he refused to engage. What gave him the confidence?
While driving from New York to Washington, I asked myself this question many times. The highway that brought me here was built nearly a hundred years ago and is more modern than 99 per cent of India’s highways. When I stopped for lunch at a typical American fast food restaurant on the way, I found myself wishing that the prime minister could have driven to Washington as well. If he had, he would have seen how easily modern infrastructure can coexist with environmental preservation. On either side of the highway stretched forests in autumn colours that looked as if they would have been renewed after the road was built. This can happen in India too but because our leaders have preferred to ignore these things in the past, this never happened. So we have degraded forests and degraded highways.
Can Modi change India? That is the question everyone I have met has asked me. Investors have asked it for reasons of investment and because the prime minister has emphasised so often during this visit that he believes in “minimum government”. They know from having tried to make investments how often they have been defeated by maximum government. Politicians have asked the question in the hope that India will play the role it should be playing internationally and friends have asked the question in the hope that one day when they return to India, they will see clean cities and modern infrastructure.
At an environment conference in Washington, I heard India’s most famous environmentalist, R.K. Pachauri, speak of how the prime minister has shown a passionate interest in solar energy. He pointed out that India is a major importer of oil and could soon be importing as much as 900 million tonnes of coal as well. So sustainable energy is no longer an option. At another gathering in this city, I heard Indian businessmen talk of how excited they were by the prime minister spelling out clearly that obstacles to investment would be removed. In New York, at a reception for the local Indian community, he spoke to everyone individually and asked everyone to persuade at least five of their friends to visit India, indicating that tourism would play a big role in his future plans.
On a personal level, nearly everyone I met asked if it was true that the only nourishment he had in the nine days of navratri was water and lemon juice. I said I believed this to be true and memories came back of another prime minister whose taste in beverages was so bizarre that it was hard to travel abroad if you were Indian in the late Seventies and not be asked if it was true that the prime minister drank his own urine. So with the perspective of a veteran journalist, what I can say is that I cannot remember a prime minister who has succeeded in changing India’s image for the better in so short a time.
There were those who stood in small groups at street corners carrying black flags of protest and placards calling Modi a murderer, but they were so few that you needed a searchlight to find them. Modi succeeded on this visit in changing not just India’s image, but his own.
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