Rockstar Status: Narendra Modi’s American Trip and the Future of Indo-American Cooperation

September 29 number image

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in front of a diaspora crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York sold out the legendary arena and drew between 15,000 and 20,000 guests.  Modi’s star power in America underlines the incredible opportunity for further bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Think of the number of people who can sell out Madison Square Garden.  Now put aside the musicians, bands, actors, comics, plays, musicals, sports teams, and other cultural performances.  How many people are left?  Few, if any!

The better question to ask should perhaps be “how many politicians can sell out Madison Square Garden?”.  The answer to that is alarmingly low.  Discussing this very point with some colleagues this morning, we came to the conclusion that such a list would indeed be quite sparse: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton (perhaps Bill, too), Enrique Pena Nieto, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and perhaps even Aung San Suu Kyi.  Beyond that list, only Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin could conceivably obtain such a crowd in New York – and, if at all, only for the shock value.  This list is extremely small and generally reserved for the most elite world leaders and humanitarians.  This weekend, Narendra Modi firmly positioned himself in that exclusive club.

Modi’s sold out speech at the iconic New York venue illustrates the continued popular appeal of the Indian Prime Minister.  To be welcomed by the Indian diaspora, an overwhelmingly affluent population, further underlines the reformist power many see in Modi.

Beyond the obvious implication for the Prime Minister’s popularity, Modi’s first visit to New York launches the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the two countries.  To be sure, Modi’s visit was met with a deal of controversy, particularly from minority groups who still accuse him of genocide during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.  Yet the most striking image is not the picketers and protesters, but the hordes of Indian-Americans ecstatically cheering their Prime Minister.

As I’ve written numerous times, Modi is an incredible oddity in Indian politics as he is a forward-facing pragmatic reformer, rather than the typical democratic-dynastical and purely inward facing politician India has grown accustomed to.  Within this context, Modi represents the best hope of further rapprochement with the United States.  The man once blacklisted by the State Department, now shares a common vision with the United States for reforming the sclerotic South Asian giant.  Furthermore, Modi has proven to be a vital partner, both within South Asia, and as a global player.

In addition to Modi’s favorable views and incredible popularity, both he and the United States share one principal threat that should push the two sides closer together: China.  India is increasingly worried of its neighbor’s bellicose action and the United States views India as a clear check to a rising China.

Within this framework, a strong India, both economically and militarily, is an important ally for the United States.  This week’s state dinner and official visit in Washington will likely be focused on increasing the relations between the two giants.  For both sides, it truly seems like the stars are aligning for a new Indo-American relationship.

Modi’s show of force (and popularity) at Madison Square Garden this weekend has surely grabbed the world’s attention.  The long term impact of the Indian Prime Minister’s massive popularity and his reformist zeal is evidently not a self-fulfilling prophecy.  India still has a long way to go before it can fix the ills that have plagued the country of late.  Yet, the near 20,000 people attending the PM’s speech have sent a clear message to the United States government that Narendra Modi is an opportunity the United States can simply not afford to pass up.

More on the statistic:

Other relevant links: