The speeches that defined Narendra Modi’s whirlwind US tour

For you… and you… and you
For you… and you… and you
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Like any good politician, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi knows how to speak to his audience.

He arrived in the US on Friday to much fanfare and even more expectation. In his maiden speech at the UN, he spoke as the leader of the global poor saying, “when we think of the scale of want in the world—2.5 billion people without access to basic sanitation; 1.3 billion people without access to electricity; or 1.1 billion people without access to drinking water—we need a more comprehensive and concerted direct international action.”

Later that day, in a surprise appearance at the Global Citizen’s Festival in Central Park, he spoke in English to the overwhelmingly young crowd. His choice to speak in a language he rarely uses in public was likely a way to connect with an American audience. He did make a gaffe, telling actor Hugh Jackman—who introduced him on stage—”May be the force be with you,” a line from the Star Wars films, although Jackman has never appeared in any.

On Sunday, his audience was nearly 20,000 Indian-Americans at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. Modi’s message was clear to this largely affluent non-resident Indian (NRI) crowd: invest in India, and Modi will make it the country they fantasize about. “You have loved me more than any other leader. To pay back this debt, I am going to make the India of your dreams,” Modi told the crowd.

His last speech in New York was Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a Manhattan think tank. A breakfast with 11 business chief executives was followed by a speech to a crowd of journalists, policymakers and academics. It was arguably the most substantive speech of his week in America, covering terrorism, gender equality and education equality.

“So, this is my government’s agenda: Educate your daughter and save your daughter,” he told a women rights activist who asked about his policy on promoting gender equality and confronting gender-based violence. He did have his lapses, which included skirting a question on Kashmir, but Modi left the influential crowd largely impressed.

Next stop was Washington, where he arrived on Monday to screaming hordes of Indians in the city’s embassy district, where he paid tribute to a statue of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi. Modi and US President Barack Obama co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post on a “renewed US-India partnership for the 21st century.”

On Tuesday, he finished out his US tour meeting with nearly 300 members of the US-India Business Council. There, he covered some thorny issues, including the current WTO dispute. But, his commitments to slashing through bureaucratic red tape and creating what he called a more “friendly” business environment in India was well received by the audience. “We are focusing in India not just on policies but also on processes to make it easy and productive to do business in India,” said Modi.

Looking visibly exhausted, he left Washington with promises of at least $41 billion worth in investments but, as the Times of India noted, “thorny issues such as Indian taxation laws, trade and civilian nuclear energy cooperation” remain unresolved. Some things can only be fixed with action, not speeches.