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Land of the free, home of Modi fans

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K.P. NAYAR   |     |   Published 29.09.14, 12:00 AM

Narendra Modi greets the audience at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday as American legislators and others applaud on stage. Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment

New York, Sept. 28: If only Narendra Modi had been elected Prime Minister a year ago, he could have honestly told Barack Obama on Monday that the crowd he addressed in New York today at his public reception rivalled that at his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech on August 28, 2008.

When Obama accepted his nomination for the first time at the Invesco Field in Denver, a multi-purpose stadium, he spoke to 84,000 people, a record-setting crowd of its kind for America, where a rally of 10,000 men and women is considered “mammoth”.

“Team PM Visit”, which put together today’s gathering at the Madison Square Garden where Bill Clinton accepted his first Democratic presidential nomination in July 1992, was packed to its capacity of 18,200 people. The way Indians are, maybe a few hundred more managed to squeeze in, ignoring the local fire brigade’s safety regulations.

Indian Americans started queuing up at the venue hours before the doors of Madison Square Garden opened at 8.30 in the morning. Once they were in, there was another three-hour wait for the Prime Minister to arrive. The organisers had arranged entertainment in the form of dancing and music to keep the crowd occupied.

Four US Senators, 36 Congressmen and one state governor were among those who came to hear Modi notwithstanding the handicap, for most of them, of not knowing Hindi. Modi made up for it by meeting each one of them individually backstage before starting his speech. He sat down separately for nearly 15 minutes with Robert Menendez, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, whose support on Capitol Hill is crucial for India.

Never before have so many US legislators attended an Indian American event. Usually, it is for visiting Indian leaders to go in search of America’s elected representatives on Capitol Hill, not the other way round.

For the Indian Americans who waited all morning patiently for Modi, the wait was well worth it. Modi delivered an extempore address which soared close to the heights of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

The Prime Minister outlined his dreams for India in its 75th year of independence. One dream he shared with the audience is that every Indian will have a house of his own by 2022, he declared to wild cheers of support.

Another dream, Modi said, was that by 2019, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Indians would have embraced cleanliness as a national mission because it was Gandhi’s dream to see an India that is rid of filth and dirt.

Modi spoke from a revolving stage, his speech punctuated by Bill Clinton-style gestures that Indian Americans are familiar with. The Prime Minister appealed to those in his audience with Indian ancestry to join him in making India’s development a popular movement like the independence movement inspired by Gandhi.

He promised to impart skill development to the people so that India can supply the world’s workforce: skilled teachers, trained nurses and so on. Once Modi had the audience in thrall, he proceeded to make them delirious with his announcements of schemes and facilities for Indians abroad.

The audience wildly cheered Modi when he said lifetime visas would be granted to holders of “Persons of Indian Origin Cards”. Further, the PIO card scheme and overseas citizenship schemes would be merged into one.

For US citizens, including Indians who have renounced their nationality, Modi announced long-term visas as well as tourist visas on arrival at Indian airports, decisions that will be welcomed in view of recent troubles with Indian visa arrangements in the US.

Modi’s speech was once again littered with catchphrases which delighted the audience. One was about the country which was once a land of snake charmers. Now, young Indians twirl the mouse and the world dances accordingly, he quipped.

But this was not what the organisers had originally planned in the scale of the reception. They wanted to host the reception for Modi at the MetLife Stadium here which has a seating capacity of 82,500 people, only 1,500 fewer than Obama’s record-setting crowd. But it turned out that the stadium had already been booked today for a National Football League game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets.

Unwilling to give up, the organisers then tried to book the Yankees Stadium here which can seat 50,291 people. But that too had been booked for a baseball game between two of the most exciting teams in the US: the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

Preparations for felicitating Modi began here only after he was elected Prime Minister in summer. Venues like MetLife and Yankees stadiums are booked at least a year in advance, sometimes more.

Down, but not out, the organisers then settled for Madison Square Garden, which, no doubt, is one of the most prestigious venues for any event in all of the US. The ambitious plan of getting together a crowd that rivals that of a presidential election convention, although thwarted, is a reminder of how strong and organised the three-million Indian American community has become in this country.

Of course, when it came to a matter of loyalty to the BJP, the community has always put its best foot forward. After the nuclear tests ordered by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 and automatic imposition of sanctions by Bill Clinton’s presidency, the community had mobilised itself to campaign against those sanctions.

The effort had all-round support among Indian Americans, but it was led by the Overseas Friends of the BJP, one of the better organised ethnic organisations here.

A grateful Vajpayee appointed one of its supporters, Bhishma Agnihotri, as ambassador-at-large with a global mandate. Agnihotri organised a public reception for Vajpayee in September 2003 when he was visiting New York, like Modi now, for the United Nations General Assembly.

But that was a much smaller affair than today’s. It was held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here with a seating capacity of only 3,800 people.

That reception was blighted by rivalry between Agnihotri’s office here and the Indian embassy in Washington, which never really accepted the RSS supporter’s appointment. They considered him an interloper and always put roadblocks in his path.

But not this time. Modi made it clear to those who initiated the idea of a public reception that it should not be hosted by any single organisation or group with specific affiliation.

As a result, efforts such as those by a New England group linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the federation of Indian organisations in New York, which is limited by its local geographic reach, fell by the wayside.

Modi signalled his acceptance of a long-time confidant, Chicago-based physician Bharat Barai, as “lead volunteer” for the programme. The Prime Minister’s office then formally told Barai that the reception should have the image of a national event and it should not be merely an east coast function, Barai told the media.

The PMO asked Piyush Goyal, the minister of state for power, to act as a bridge between the organisers and the Indian embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York. That eliminated any possibility of friction between officials and the community.

In Barai’s estimate, which he has talked about for fund-raising purposes, the entire function has cost approximately $1.2 million. The cost of renting Madison Square Garden alone is more than half a million dollars.

The management of the venue agreed to rent out the premises to a “Reception Committee for the Prime Minister of India” — which was created for this event and has no credit history or bank back-up — only after India’s consul general in New York, D. Mulay, confirmed in a letter that the diplomatic post had recognised the committee as a contracting party for the reception.

It is understood that some parties offered to give $1 million and also fill up the venue as an easy way out. That was where Modi’s hands-on approach in picking a trusted friend in Barai paid off. Barai, an oncologist who did his MBBS from Baroda Medical College, has known Modi since the BJP leader’s days in the RSS as a pracharak.

Barai’s wife, Panna, is a physician too. They were major contributors to fellow Chicago native Barack Obama’s two elections as President.

 

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