India and the United States: Charming, disarming

  • Narendra Modi takes America by storm
India and the United States: Charming, disarming

Oct 7, 2014-

WHEN India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited America in 1949 he spent weeks crossing the country, speaking at universities and calling on Albert Einstein. He was shocked by the commercialism he saw, joking that “one should never visit America for the first time”.

The new giant of Indian politics, Narendra Modi, showed no such qualms on his first official trip on September 26th-30th. He visited politicians and dined with Barack Obama. But he also earlier glad-handed Wall Street chiefs and held a rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden for over 18,000 Indian-Americans. It featured screens displaying adoring tweets, and Bollywood dancers in fluorescent uniforms writhing to the rock anthem “Born in the USA”. Even Jon Stewart, host of a satirical television show, was impressed. “No world leader has drawn that many Americans for anything. Except maybe one of Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties.”

India and America have had often prickly relations since Mr Nehru’s era. Until Mr Modi was elected prime minister in May he was banned from entering America, after communal riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 in which over 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed. Mr Modi was in charge of Gujarat at that time and was judged by American officials to have turned a blind eye to the violence, or even abetted it. (Now that he is a head of state, the visa ban does not apply.)

Last December the clumsy arrest

of an Indian diplomat in New York escalated into a diplomatic spat. In

July India blocked the signing of a

new global trade accord that

was backed by America. Though military relations have been improving, India has frowned on Western

sanctions on Russia.

The easy bit of Mr Modi’s trip involved energising the Indian-American diaspora and generating publicity back home. The harder part involved rehabilitating his reputation with America’s leaders and seeking investment. Mr Modi, a brilliant if sometimes dark orator at home, tried to show a cuddly side. Admittedly, moments of bombast slipped out: he claimed to the New York crowd that “you have given me a lot of love; this kind of love has never been given to an Indian leader before”.

President Barack Obama, for one, seems prepared to accept that Mr Modi is a changed man. Together, they visited Martin Luther King’s monument in the capital, something that only a couple of years ago would have been unimaginable. Republicans liked Mr Modi’s pro-business message. Whether Mr Modi’s visit contributed to the Indian revival he seeks is another matter. No big deals were signed.

American firms can no longer help with the labour-intensive manufacturing that India must attract to create jobs for millions of young Indians. That is the domain of East Asian firms, but Mr Modi seems to have neglected this particular constituency—the boss of one Asian company, employing tens of millions of workers globally, says he cannot get a meeting with him. Mr Modi has so far favoured an odd combination of building sky-high expectations, courting adulation and moving on. That has its risks. As Mr Nehru observed in a speech at Columbia University in 1949, if the hopes of the poor are not met, “then there is the apathy of despair or the destructive rage of the revolutionary”.

Published: 08-10-2014 09:50

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