For Indian PM, an All-Star American Tour

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to the United States with great expectations, after his party was the first to win a majority in India in 30 years. After a brief immigration mishap, Modi arrives with a singular mandate — to give a renewed impetus to U.S.-India relations.

Modi enthralled the Indian Diaspora at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, providing a sense of leadership, which was lacking under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and appealing to a sense of patriotism. His address had all the hallmarks of a typical Modi speech.

There was extemporaneous rhetoric, philosophizing, a potshot (or two) directed at political pundits and a declaration of the need for Indians all over the world to unite in order to make the 21st century India’s century. In his speech, Modi set himself, and his whole country, lofty goals for 2019 — a clean India — and 2022 — shelter for all Indians. Above all, Modi’s speech served two broad purposes. First, it re-energized both his party and Indians at home for upcoming state elections, and second, it allowed him to sow the seeds of a strong India-focused “interest group” in the United States.

Interestingly, Modi’s speech at Madison Square Garden prominently featured an emotional appeal to those with Indian roots. Modi urged them to come back to India and contribute to their motherland. He cited the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who returned to India from South Africa in 1915 to serve his country.

In many ways, this can be seen as Modi’s attempt to forge an Indian interest group to influence the United States, similar to Israeli lobbies in Washington. One can understand Modi’s point of view given the tremendous, powerful role Indians play in the private sector — especially in Silicon Valley — and their strong support for Modi’s politics.

While U.S.-India relations have historically been fractious, the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal in 2008 marked a watershed moment in relations between the two countries. President George W. Bush and Singh shared great relations, exhibiting deep commitment to the partnership between these two countries.

Taking this forward, President Barack Obama stated during his speech at the Indian parliament in 2010 that “the relationship between the United States and India — bound by our shared interests and our shared values — will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

Yet, the two countries have not seen major collaboration in working toward achieving this common goal.

One of the most important items on Modi’s New York agenda was a breakfast meeting with CEOs of large companies, including Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Eric Schmidt of Google, and Michael Corbat of Citigroup. With his plans of boosting manufacturing and job creation in India, he extended an open invitation to the private sector.

By promising “red carpet and not red tape,” he says India will welcome foreign investors. By promising clarity in lawmaking and a reduction of time required to obtain clearances to start businesses in India, Modi offered commitments which the U.S. business community had long desired.

Modi had a number of other meetings. The Clintons, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg were just some of the luminaries who called on the Indian prime minister at the New York Palace Hotel.

For Americans there seems to have been a turnaround. A man once considered a pariah in his own country is now the talk of the town. There seems to be hope, as well as a sense of relief, that after a long time, Americans are talking to an Indian prime minister who enjoys a majority in Parliament and is not bogged down by the compulsions of coalition partners.

There is no doubt Modi is a very good orator. Even skeptics will concede that he has said all the right things. However, many of his plans have been repetitions of what he promised on the campaign.

Given that he has only had four months on the job, there is not a lot more to expect. The real challenge will be delivering on these promises.

Posted on October 6, 2014 .