New York gives star treatment to Indian PM Modi

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, New York

  • Published
Media caption,

The BBC's Nick Bryant: "What's missing from this mention of Narendra Modi's controversial back story"

For one afternoon only, America's most famous sporting cathedral became "Modison Square Garden".

This arena has hosted Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and Mohammed Ali. Bill Clinton came here in 1992 to be crowned the Democratic presidential nominee.

But the superstar welcome was reserved for Modi, a one-time pariah, who up until recently could not even have walked through US immigration at John F Kennedy International Airport let alone step on stage at such a sacred venue.

The colour and exuberance of the world's largest democracy was fused with the stage management of a US political convention.

From the red, white and blue balloons primed to drop on to the stage at the finale to the Obama-style portrait that became the logo of the rally, everything was intricately choreographed to present the new face of India's controversial leader.

Downplay the Bollywood, had been the message to the organisers, the Indian-American Community Foundation, from the prime ministerial office in Delhi.

But even Bollywood with the sound turned down is an assault on the senses. There were dancers, singers and even a speed-painter who knocked off a portrait of the bearded and bespectacled leader with the haste of a graffiti artist trying to avoid the NYPD.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Indian dancers entertained the audience in Madison Square Garden

They were supposed to be warm-up acts, not that the capacity audience needed rousing. A spill-over crowd of some 800 supporters watched on big screens at Times Square.

To chants of "Modi, Modi" the Indian prime minister made his entrance dressed in a saffron-coloured jacket, with his hands clasped together in the traditional "Namaste" greeting. But such was the melee, with a phalanx of security guards providing a protective cordon, that the scene was reminiscent of a prize fighter shuffling slowly towards the ring.

This was a rebranding exercise, both national and personal. He wanted to show that he was not an ogre, the Hindu nationalist hardliner who was banned from entering the US in 2005 by the Bush administration for his alleged complicity in sectarian violence in his home state of Gujarat.

He also wanted to portray himself as the leader of a nation that would soon rival America.

Speaking from a lectern on a revolving circular stage that allowed everyone to see him front on, Modi spoke with confidence and swagger about how this would not only be the Asian century but also the Indian century.

'I have a dream'

Joking that he understood visa problems, he promised to make it easier for members of the Indian diaspora to return home, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. They should "join hands to serve our mother India".

Telling the audience "I have a dream", he evoked the civil rights leader the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

On a lighter note, there was a neat one-liner about how a country once known for its snake charmers had become a hi-tech haven known for its proficiency with a mouse.

But the biggest applause came when he described his extraordinary rise from a humble tea-seller to the leader of a sixth of humanity, the sort of up-by-your-bootstraps personal narrative that always goes down well in America.

Missing from the event, of course, was the controversial backstory that led to him being barred from America for almost a decade. But a crowd of protesters gathered outside Madison Square Garden, tried to remind everyone of the awfulness that unfolded in Gujarat in 2002, and his alleged part in the bloodshed.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Modi supporters were also out in New York's Times Square

"Modi, the fascist," read one of the placards. "Stop spreading hate in the name of Hinudism," screamed another. "Modi, Modi, you can't hide, you committed genocide," was the chant.

Modi, oblivious to the protest outside, claimed that no Indian prime minister has ever received such a warm welcome on American soil.

And perhaps he is right, judging by what looked like an honour guard of US lawmakers that joined him on stage for the singing of the US and Indian national anthems. Big Washington hitters like the New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, were there not just to greet him but endorse him.

With the cheers and music still ringing in his ears, Mr Modi moves on to Washington, where he'll receive a red-carpet welcome at the White House.

The Obama administration is also prepared to forgive what happened in Gujarat, if not quite forget.