‘May the Force be with you’, wished Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the 60000-strong crowd gathered at the Central Park in New York to celebrate a Global Citizens Concert. Familiarity with this catchphrase from ‘Star Wars’ connected him further to the mostly young people who listened to and wowed him as he delivered a short address in English to them.
This is the Modi magic, the ability to connect with people of all ages, whether it is from a podium or when he breaches protocol, as he did on India’s Independence Day in August last – to mix and interact with the youngsters gathered there, to their obvious delight and pleasant surprise.
He seems to have a knack to reach out to youth, both by direct involvement, and probably also because he uses their preferred portal, social media, as much as they do. And the fact that he proclaims to the world that India is a young country of 800 million people under 35 years of age, in whom he believes and on whom he has pinned his trust and hope, repeatedly exhorting them to take their country forward. Before his election as Prime Minister, at a talk he gave at Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi in February 2013, he expressed his confidence in India’s youth, and he has been consistent in emphasizing this message since.
The ‘Force’ wish, which had come at the end of his speech, was preceded by his quoting the well-known Sanskrit universal prayer, a peace mantra, which he then translated in English to thunderous applause:
Sarve bhavantu sukhinah
Sarve santu niramayah
Sarve bhadrani pashyantu
Ma kaschit dukha bhagbhavet
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
‘May all be happy, may all be free from disease, may all enjoy prosperity, may none experience sorrow. Om peace, peace, peace.’
Gruelling, whirlwind tour
Whether it was at his first public address to the whole world as Prime Minister outside of India, at the United Nations General Assembly (in Hindi), at the Central Park and then at Madison Square Garden in New York, his voice was strong and resonant. He was fully engaged as he discussed with his numerous interlocutors, responding to probing questions firmly, and even joked a few times — as when he answered (in Hindi) a journalist asking about US-India relations during the meeting at the Foreign Relations Council, that even in a husband-wife relationship there are tensions! He was not just listening and nodding in the nearly 36 scheduled meetings and events during his 5-day visit, as well as during numerous unscheduled meetings – he was very alert all the time in this gruelling, packed and whirlwind tour.
Why this is highlighted is that all through he has been fasting, on the occasion of the 9-day Navratri festival, taking nothing but warm water, which is also what he stuck to during the 90-minute dinner meet with President Obama and officials at the White House. To skeptics who wondered about whether this was medically possible and whether he was furtively snacking, the answer is that he has been doing this for forty years.
After all, he is a yogi – who gets up every morning at 4 to practise his yoga, which undoubtedly explains his ‘energetic’ engagement. He wished the Force to be ‘with’ others, but as far as he himself is concerned, the Force is ‘in’ him. And that’s what may be the cause of the discomfiture of his naysayers in India, whose despairing cynicism vis-à-vis the one person who has, at last, revived India’s image on the world stage is as revolting as it is shameful.
In fact, from the larger Indian Diaspora perspective, this is perhaps the most significant takeaway from this, his maiden visit to address the largest world forum, the United Nations General Assembly, along with his much-awaited appointments with the US President, the American establishment and business community, and other stakeholders including the hugely successful gathering with the Indo-Americans at Madison Square Garden.
In the 1960s, when famine stalked the land in India and it had to accept the PL-480 arrangement to receive food grains from the US, the prevailing image of India was of its Prime Minister going around the world with a begging bowl. This image endured even until the 1990s, when the economy was still precarious as Prime Minister Narasimha Rao took over the reins of the country.
I remember a conversation with a Sister (nurse-in-charge) in the operation theatre in England in 1977, as we were preparing to start a case. She told me that although I looked Indian, ‘your English accent is not like that of Indians.’ I clarified that I was of Indian ancestral origin but that I was from Mauritius, and that is why my accent was different. Her reply flabbergasted me – ‘thank God you’re not Indian!’ she shot at me.
The situation was reversed when, in a similar setting (the operation theatre) in France in 1985, there was hardly any interest in me as a person when my colleagues learnt I was from Mauritius; it was taken for granted that I spoke French and that I came from this small island near Reunion. But the day they ‘discovered’ that I was an Indien — they had never met one before – hell broke loose in a manner of speaking. I had gone there on a plastic/reconstructive surgery fellowship. But this became secondary to them, as they started to ask and expected me to know everything about India, Indian culture and the Hindu religion specifically, about Mahatma Gandhi and so on, as if I was an expert on all of that!
India’s image in the world
My point is that India’s image in the world is as vitally important for Indians as it is for people of Indian origin across the Indian Diaspora. And after Jawaharlal Nehru and President-philosopher Radhakrishnan, it is now, decades later, that India has generated a leader who has managed — and in such a short time since he has been in office — to pitch India on the world stage in a big way. Shortly after his election, Western leaders were prompt in sending their envoys to meet him, to seek appointments given the business and economic opportunities that a nation of 1.25 billion people represents.
For the first time in 30 years, India had elected not only a strong government with an overwhelming majority, but the architect of this victory was no less a strongman in every sense of the word, Narendra Modi. He was greeted as the leader of the largest democracy in the world, which conducted free and fair elections across a million voting sites using electronic voting machines. His unmatched oratorical skill, his sense of humour — the picture of Indians as snake-charmers was now replaced by that of young Indians manipulating the mouse! – his charisma and simple sartorial elegance and, above all, the content of his messages addressed to the whole world, inviting investors to come and ‘Make in India’, have resonated and made him connect with whatever audiences he has addressed.
Some critics in India were of the view that all this was more hype and less substance, that it was more about building his own image than that of India, and that there were no big takeaways for India nor significant giveaways by America as the outcome of Modi’s visit. But the more mature, aware and realistic among them acknowledged that as with all such high-level visits, it is afterwards that the real issues, and the policies and processes related to them, get to be thrashed out over the short to longer terms by the respective establishments and stakeholders. The issues include, among others, FDI and insurance, the civilian nuclear deal with the US, intellectual property rights (IPR) in relation to pharmaceutical products, trade facilitation within the WTO framework, collaboration on tackling terrorism.
The point that is missed, so obvious as to sound trite, is: can a country’s image be dissociated from that of its leader? I won’t even venture to answer that! It is not only a leader who has to give a good impression of his country through his behaviour and actions – every citizen must do that. I used to tell medical students that when they become doctors and travel abroad for study and training, they must remember that they are ambassadors of their culture, their profession and their country. And the higher one’s status, the greater is the responsibility to fulfil these three roles simultaneously so as to earn respect and recognition for oneself and one’s country.
I believe that Prime Minister Modi has done exactly that and, given his position, track record and stature, has raised immeasurably the honour and prestige of India and Indians, including the Diaspora. And that is what should make us proud. Both for the world and for India, his towering presence, his ‘savviness’ with modernity, his powerful messages for democracy and development, his call at UN General Assembly for the world to go beyond limited G’s (G-4, 8, 20…) to ‘G-All’ in a spirit of mutual help and interdependence based on the concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the world is one family – have kindled hope in the minds and hearts of those he has had the opportunity to interact with in this short trip. It is the same hope, and not hype, that he carried home to India with him. Only blinded Indians will refuse to see that.
But Modi, and India, will move on despite them. Which other leader of the world’s largest democracy could have scripted with the leader of the world’s oldest democracy a joint editorial (in the Washington Post) underpinned by the spirit of ‘Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go’?
Wake up call
More Indians must wake up for India to arise afresh and rise. This will be good not only for them but for the whole world, and no need to say for the Indian Diaspora too. Narendra Modi is the leader who is giving them the opportunity to do so, to bring the light of hope to the hundreds of millions of their forsaken compatriots through meeting the high expectations of Modi’s visit by developing their country, starting with cleanliness and sanitation so that that it becomes a stronger magnet for ‘tourism that unites’ rather than ‘terrorism that divides’ to quote, again, their unique Prime Minister. Would they rather miss it in vacuous debates about his persona and doubting his intentions?
This is not a sermon to Indians, far from it. It is an appeal for the doubting Thomases among them to be less cynical and more positive about the strengths of India, to exploit them for the betterment of their fellow Indians who are less fortunate, and to surf the surging wave of the fresh self-esteem that Narendra Modi has carved out for them on the world stage. Already, as a Diaspora Indian, I feel immensely proud. If I were an Indian national, I would have been even prouder! At this juncture, joining Modi in rebuilding India is the only way forward: many have already done this by their involvement in different ways in the Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan: Clean India Campaign. Knowing him, he will assuredly walk the talk in due course.
* Published in print edition on 3 October 2014