Deconstructing Modi: Thespian, statesman and strongman

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, speaks to approximately 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York, Sept. 28, 2014. (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With over 50,000 IndianAmericans from all across the country registering to attend the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally on Sept. 22 in Houston, starring Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and with the event garnering even more excitement with President Donald Trump expected to join India’s rock-star, erstwhile U.S. ambassadors, leading policy wonks and scholars provided their perspective on to what makes Modi tick and makes him such a phenomenon.

Teresita Schaffer, a retired career diplomat, currently a Senior Adviser at McLarty Associates, who also writes the popular ‘South Asia Hand’ blog, said, “He believes in the greatness of India — hence his determination to grow the economy, to strengthen India’s ties with the great powers and India’s standing as a great power, or at least a great power in the making.

“Other prime ministers — probably all of them — shared the belief that India is great and ought to be recognized as such. But they were defensive about India’s vulnerabilities, especially on the economic front. Modi isn’t apologetic about anything.”

Thespian, statesman and strongman: Policy pundits deconstruct Modi's popularity

Teresita Schaffer

Schaffer said, there is no denying that “his views were very much shaped by his RSS membership. Hindutva is an important part of this. Modi wants to keep power, and to keep moving toward these goals — but he’s disciplined enough, and sophisticated enough, to make this a long-term goal and avoid unnecessary political backlash on the way.

“So, he has not embraced his party colleagues who have advocated a strident approach to Hindutva, but he hasn’t rebuked them either.

“I suspect he had been looking for the right moment to revoke article 370 Since Pakistan was clearly not going to settle on terms that Modi would find acceptable, he went ahead on his own.”

Explaining as to what attracts his large fan base among expatriates in the U.S. Schaffer said, “Modi is great theater. He makes sure the story is always about him and has a catchy slogan — “’Howdy Modi!’ He puts on a great show. His dress — wonderful bandhni turbans —, his ability to work the crowd, and his choice of large venues with a certain evocative power a la Madison Square Garden.”

Schaffer said, “Modi has put India in the global public view in a big way. The meetings with leaders of China/Russia/U.S. For the Indian diaspora in the U.S., he is very careful of the relationship with the U.S. – but he isn’t intimidated by Trump.”

Meanwhile, she added, “His reputation for economic reform inspires enthusiasm among Indian-Americans who want to see India prosper in the way they have prospered in the U.S. His has taken some important actions to strengthen the economy — like GST— but I believe that the reputation and the hope have exceeded the actions.”

Schaffer said, “This also gives him fans outside the Indian-American community. The U.S. business community has frequently made the mistake of assuming that his interest in a strong economy means he’s interested in a deregulated economy.”

She said that though she hasn’t haven’t seen polling data on his decision on revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided special status for Kashmir it was a no-brainer that “it is popular with the U.S.-based diaspora, for the same reasons it is popular inside India — a bold move to change an unsatisfactory status quo. So, that adds to his reputation for decisive action.

“As for Hindutva – for the expatriates,” Schaffer said, “ Modi’s actions — or his inaction when members of his team take a strident position — has little effect on their lives in the US. So, it’s not much of a downer.”

Ashley Tellis, a former senior Bush administration official and currently the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he believed “Modi’s popularity in India derives for the fact that he grasps the aspirations of the average Indian better than most, and can articulate those aspirations in a way that few other Indian politicians can.

“He is a genuinely charismatic leader and the fact that he does not come from India’s social elites makes him someone that ordinary Indians can easily relate to,” added Tellis, arguably one of the country’s foremost strategic experts, and noted that Modi’s “personal incorruptibility only burnishes that affection further.”

Thespian, statesman and strongman: Policy pundits deconstruct Modi's popularity

Ahsley Tellis

Furthermore, he argued that Modi’s “oratorical and especially rhetorical skills are phenomenal — and when he speaks to large crowds, people hear him as if he was speaking to each individual personally. The Indian masses trust him, they believe he wants the best for them, and they are convinced that he has the answers to their problems — even when he doesn’t.”

According to Tellis, “U.S. policymakers welcome him because they view him as someone who is really committed to building a new U.S.-India relationship of the kind that has always been promised.”

While acknowledging that former Prime Minister “Manmohan Singh did too,” he said that Dr. Singh “was frustrated by his own government and party in a way that Modi simply is not. So, there is an expectation that Modi can actually deliver on the relationship at long last.”

Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center said, “It's impossible to pinpoint a single, unifying factor that explains Modi's popularity among Indian-Americans, and that's because there are so many different reasons. Clearly there is something about Modi here in the U.S., because it is extraordinary how so many Indian-Americans are so smitten with him.”-

“First of all, you can cite the geographic factors, as many Indian-Americans or their families are originally from Gujarat and associate Modi with his many economic achievements there. Then there's the personality factor: Modi is perceived by many Indian- Americans and NRIs to be a breath of fresh air — a clean, efficient, and bold leader with a can-do attitude and someone who strengthens India at home even while raising India's profile on the global stage.”

Kugelman acknowledged, “Certainly, his tough stand on Pakistan — one that appears all the more justifiable to Indian-Americans after his earlier policy of conciliation fell flat— has resonated as well.

“The fact that this image of Modi has remained so strong among Indian-Americans even after a number of failed economic reforms and a lot of bad global press from Indian actions in Kashmir says something about just how much he and his persona continue to resonate.

“I also think we should give credit to Modi and his political advisers, because they all understood the value quite some time ago of appealing to the diaspora,” he added, and noted, “There's been a lot of outreach and cultivation over the years to try to win over Indian- Americans, and clearly it's worked. Sometimes, especially when thinking back to the whole Madison Square Garden experience, one is tempted to think of a cult of personality effect.”

But ultimately, Kugelman said, “This all comes down to a simple manifestation of unadulterated popularity.”-

“A final factor to consider is that there is no alternative to Modi,” he said. “There are few other major political figures in India with Modi's international stature. The Gandhis and other Congress members have fallen on hard times. The other parties are too local or regional to have leaders that would resonate nationally, much less internationally.”

Thus, Kugelman said, “ In effect Modi is all the Indian Americans have got in terms of a prominent Indian political personality that can give them something to believe in and someone to cheer for.”

But he said, “There's a different dynamic at play when it comes to U.S. lawmakers. Modi's popularity on the Hill is particularly striking given that he was persona non grata throughout Washington for quite a few years after the Gujarat riots.

“His ability to win over so many of them can on one level be attributed to his skillful politics. His speech to a joint session of the U.S. congress in 2016 was a master stroke, because he adroitly cited American idioms and history throughout. It was a big hit.”

“But I do think the warmth afforded to him on the Hill may be less because of Modi per se and more because of the broader U.S.-India relationship. There's strong bipartisan support in Washington for a deep U.S.-India partnership, and so naturally Modi will be received warmly because of that,” he added.

That said, Kugelman predicted, “It’s not all peaches and cream for Modi when it comes to how he's viewed in the U.S. Ever since the Article 370 revocation, there have been lots of angry words about the move emanating from Capitol Hill, including from some highly influential members of Congress. And while most Indian Americans are behind him on the Article 370 move, there are some communities within the diaspora that oppose it, and some of them will greet him with protests during his upcoming visit to the U.S.

“In effect, Modi, even though he'll largely be greeted with open arms, will face pockets of resistance from various quarters in the U.S. He still has his work cut out for him, despite all the success stories.”

Richard Fontaine, president and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), was of the view that Modi was so popular because “he has that ineffable star quality unique to a small handful of world leaders, and it is attractive to members of Congress, Indian-Americans, and U.S. presidents as different as Obama and Trump.

“He is bold, direct, controversial and action-oriented. And he infuses India, and U.S.-India relations, with a sense of momentum. Winning reelection big doesn't hurt, either.”

Thespian, statesman and strongman: Policy pundits deconstruct Modi's popularity

Richard-Fontaine

Fontaine, former foreign policy adviser to the late U.S. Senator John McCain, before which he enjoyed stints at the State Department and National Security Council, added, “So far for all of the downsides —economic performance less than promised, the Kashmir controversy, Hindutva, etc. — he remains a compelling figure in the United States. Hence a sellout crowd in Houston.”

Aparna Pande, Research Fellow and director in the Future of India and South Asia Program at the Hudson Institute, said, “Prime Minister Modi's appeal among the Indian diaspora, especially Indian-Americans, and among foreign leaders, including Americans, has to do with three key factors: First, his foreign policy has drawn upon Indian exceptionalism — a strong underlying belief among Indians for an India that is strong and plays a global role.

“Second, he has sought to accomplish these goals at a time when American policy makers are seeking allies and partners to counter the rise of China, and India has long been viewed by American leaders as the counterweight to China.

Thespian, statesman and strongman: Policy pundits deconstruct Modi's popularity

Aparna Pande

“Third and finally, is his charisma and his passion for a foreign policy and a domestic politics that is personalized and he has used social media to build a rapport with people,” she added.”

Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, echoing similar sentiments, said, “Modi resonates with the diaspora, in part, because they share a common vision of India claiming its rightful role as a global power.

“Many in the diaspora feel that India has punched far below its weight for far too long. In Modi, they see someone who can grow the economy, root out corruption and fight forcefully for a stronger India overseas. Although the prime minister’s performance on these objectives is decidedly mixed, many in the diaspora are willing to give him wide berth given that he has only had five years in office,” he explained.

Vaishnav also added, “The announcement that Trump will join Modi on stage in Houston is a diplomatic victory for India. Anytime, the president of the United States attends a rally thrown in honor of a foreign leader — it is a big deal. And, it is further underscores how far India’s star has risen in the corridors of power.

“However,” he argued, “Trump’s presence is not risk-free. As a leader known for speaking his mind — even if that means veering far off of his talking points — many within the Indian establishment are crossing their fingers that the President does not make an untoward or errant statement.”

Thus, Vaishnav warned, “In getting Trump to Houston, the Government of India has to be prepared to take the good with the bad.”

Irfan Nooruddin, Professor and director of Georgetown University’s India Initiative and the newly minted head of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said that “Mr. Modi is arguably the first Indian prime minister to understand the power and influence of the Indian diaspora around the world, and particularly in the United States.”

Thespian, statesman and strongman: Policy pundits deconstruct Modi's popularity

Irfan Nooruddin

He recalled, “From his first appearance in Madison Square Garden to the upcoming Houston stadium event, he has embraced the Indian-American community, and, in turn, they have embraced him back.”

Nooruddin said, “This community is proud of its achievements in the United States, and Mr. Modi encourages them to see their stories in the vision of New India that he has constructed and that he promotes. He both celebrates their lives here in America, and invites them to re-connect with their homeland.”

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