How Narendra Modi made history in New York

The US tour was a success.
The US tour was a success.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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There is a great song in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita on Broadway (and in the movie starring Madonna) that explains preparations for Eva Peron’s 1947 ”Rainbow Tour” around Argentina, then Europe, to promote her husband and herself as icons of the people. It goes:

There again I’ve more to do than get the message through, I haven’t started. Let’s get this show on the road, let’s make it obvious, Perón is off and rolling.

Yesterday, 67 years after that historic tour (and the independence of his own country), prime minister Narendra Modi seized the sentiment. NaMo’s own rainbow took America by storm, charming non-resident Indians, or NRIs, like never before.

The planned outfits. The overbooked schedule. The surprise appearance at a concert in Central Park, next to entertainment powerhouses Beyoncé and Jay Z. Like a rock star.

Modi is off and rolling.

In the hall, between song and dance numbers and Indian flags everywhere, it was hard for even a skeptic not to be taken. The celebration of the most glittering and enthusiastically stereotypical celebration of India’s soft power was unapologetic.

The screens prompted: “MODI! MODI! MODI!”

Dutifully, the crowd throughout the speech: “Modi, Modi, Modi!”

“I, my friends, arrived here selling tea,”  Modi said, and the crowd burst. What he said really didn’t matter: he came to meet the Indians—their children and grandchildren—who left their country to follow the American dream and brought them an Indian dream in the form of yoga, doctors, chai lattes. Modi pandered, like a rock star playing his popular numbers. No one was there to hear what new repertoire he may be working on: The crowd was there to sing along.

This is populism at its very best: Modi made everyone believe what was happening at Madison Square Garden was about them. It was actually about him—his power, his ego, his success.

As the speech finished— a well-curated number, except for the terrible English translation of the speech—the flag of India was superimposed on Modi’s image. Slowly, his face became the wheel at the centre of the flag. It does not get more obvious than that.

Modi, not India, took over New York this weekend. His mistakes and shadows seem already forgotten. He, a few months after being elected, and his promises are already celebrated like victories. The crowd drank every word, and welcomed small, unsurprising announcements (the visa on arrival that has been in the works from before he was elected) as if they were big achievements (as the chain of claim of credit for the nuclear deal before him).

Personalities like Modi get remembered for who they are, not what they did. His US tour has assured his place in history. Whether he’ll take the rest of the world’s greatest democracy with him will be seen in the next years. For now, he’s still up there on his own. And that seems to be just how he—and the throngs—want it.