Over 19,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York chanted and roared for Narendra Modi, who was elected in May. Some wore white Modi T-shirts over their clothes.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times
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They wore his face on their chests, waved it on posters, chanted his name and quoted his slogans, 19,000 fans drawn to a single star. His image stared down from the big screen at Madison Square Garden and emerged on canvas in a live speed-painting onstage. And when the man himself emerged, the capacity crowd on Sunday in New York’s most storied arena roared as one, as if all the Knicks, all the Rangers, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen had suddenly materialized.
“Modi! Modi! Modi!” the audience chanted, drowning out the announcer’s attempt to introduce the man who needed no introduction: Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, whom 19,000 people had traveled from around the country and Canada to see speak on his first trip to the United States since being elected in May. The American tour has showcased Mr. Modi as a diplomat and world leader — he has addressed the United Nations General Assembly and will meet President Obama on Monday — but on Sunday, he was all celebrity, embracing the adulation of a diaspora that maintains strong ties to the motherland.
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The Times asked Indian-Americans what Mr. Modi's trip to the U.S. means to them.
Manisha Verma, who lives in San Jose, Calif., has family from Ranchi, Jharkhand.
“Modi's upcoming trip brings a ray of hope for American Indians like me who face a conflicting reality of being part of one of the most successful and prosperous communities in the United States, and yet we carry the legacy of a poor third-world country and face biases in our adopted homeland. Modi brings hope of change in India which will help Indians have better self-esteem and image in the United States.”
Arun Gupta, who lives in New York, has family from Amritsar, Punjab.
“It's a visit by a head of state of a second-tier power that Washington is courting in terms of economic and political opportunities not the least of which is as a counterweight to China. In other words, it's business as usual.”
Vivek Pai, who lives in New York, has family from Bangalore, Karnataka.
“Today, thanks to the political expressions of 550 million Indians in the largest democratic electoral exercise in human history, the U.S. is being forced to eat the humble pie and welcome Mr. Modi as the leader of India. The greatest military and economic power on Earth had to bow to the democratic wishes of a half billion people. That represents the greatest triumph of democratic ideals during our times.”
Sheetal Ranjan, who lives in Teaneck, N.J., has family from Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
“It means that the U.S. now looks at India as a pivotal strategic partner in the world. And I am glad to be living in a nation where my origins are of value.”
Nikhil Desai, who lives in San Francisco, has family from Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
“Modi has not satisfactorily addressed the failure by his government to prevent the riots in Gujarat; presumably he has not done so because of his complicity in those events. His actions need to be scrutinized at the international level - his trip to the U.S. will likely suggest that the U.S. is with open-arms embracing Modi and won't press further into the charges.”
Sant Gupta, who lives in Lorton, Va., has family from New Delhi.
“Mr. Modi's trip will jump start the process of restoring respect and in fact admiration for Indian civilization, history, heritage and acceptance.”
Tenaz H. Dubash, who lives in New York, has family from Delhi.
“I have mixed feelings about Mr. Modi's trip to the U.S. His treatment of the minorities in Gujarat was deplorable. He is supposed to have a stellar grip on economic issues. Hopefully he can deliver economically while working tirelessly to make sure that India remains a secular democracy where all minorities are protected.”
Kayhan Irank, who lives in Jackson Heights, N.Y., has family from Mumbai.
“It means that America and Indian-Americans are actively denying the genocide that took place in Gujarat and are re-writing history regarding Modi's role in carrying it out.”
Saad Mohammad, who lives in Evanston, Ill., has family from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.
“I am appalled that the U.S. government is sponsoring this criminal who has been complicit in pogroms. There are still hundreds of millions throughout India and millions in the diaspora that refuse to go along with the Modi and BJP agenda.”
Asokan Vengassery Krishnan, who lives in Philadelphia, has family from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
“The Modi visit is expected to strengthen the ties between the most powerful and the largest democratic nations. It will also be a sweet revenge for Modi who was long being treated as a pariah by the U.S. In turn, it is also the victory of the Indian identity and might in a post-colonial, post-Cold War era. Modi will prove that India has a dignified role to play in the new world order.”
Rama Krishna Ambati, who lives in Victor, N.Y., has family from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
“I believe India has so much potential but has been waiting for a dynamic leader to lead the nation. It happened now.”
Raghu C. Mudumbai, M.D., who lives in Seattle, has family from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
“Mr. Modi's trip lays the ground work for Indian-American relations over the next 10 years at a time when the world economy continues to recover, when democratic nations seek the proper balance between security and protection of its citizens (and learn from each others experience), and when the world's largest democracy and the world's most powerful democracy seek to define their place in the new world order.”
His hero’s welcome must have seemed slightly stunning to the three dozen or so American elected officials who turned up to greet him, including several senators, 30-odd representatives and one governor, each of whom strode onstage to no more than polite applause.
“It’s starting to sound like a campaign rally,” Hari Sreenivasan, a PBS anchor who was acting as M.C. of the festivities, remarked about the chants before Mr. Modi arrived. “Remember, he’s already elected.”
But neither he nor his co-host, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America, could do much to hold their audience’s attention in the hour or so before Mr. Modi’s arrival. They were no more than the pregame show to an event broadcast live around the world and watched in “Super Modi” parties across the United States.
True, enthusiasm ran high for a traditional folk dance from Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home state, which inspired some attendees to dance along in the aisles, and for Kavita Krishnamurthy, an Indian classical singer who warbled her hit “I Love My India.” And the goateed speed-painter who dashed off Mr. Modi’s bearded, spectacled likeness in a few quick strokes during Ms. Krishnamurthy’s set drew an even more ecstatic cheer.
But there was only tepid applause for the dozen dancers, wearing glow-in-the-dark outfits reminiscent of traffic officers, who romped around the stage to the strains of “Born in the U.S.A.” — surely one of the few times Mr. Springsteen’s classic has fallen flat at the Garden.
For this crowd, the next best thing to Mr. Modi in the flesh could only be a triumphal video that showed Mr. Modi’s rise to power from the chief minister of Gujarat to prime minister of the largest democracy in the world: Modi praying, Modi bowing, Modi speaking, Modi saluting.
“Minimum government, maximum governance,” the words on-screen read, quoting one of the prime minister’s many mottos. “Red carpet, not red tape, to foster growth.” Then the Garden’s big screen returned to its default image: an illustration of Mr. Modi’s face against the colors of the Indian flag that recalled Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster of President Obama.
The same likeness graced thousands of white T-shirts that the event’s organizers, the Indian American Community Foundation, had given out. Whole families entered the Garden wearing everyday clothing and saris and left, a few hours later, with identical T-shirts pulled over their original outfits. Modi T-shirt selfies abounded.
His speech, when it came, did not disappoint. Casting himself as a man of humble origins with “the intention to do big things for small people,” he vowed to promote Indian economic growth, clean up the polluted Ganges River and improve the lot of the country’s poor and disadvantaged. He promised to make it easier for those of Indian descent to obtain visas, so that members of the Indian diaspora might bring their talents back to the homeland.
Old and young, Indian-born and American-born, the crowd laughed and roared, hollered and clapped.
Guests listened to Mr. Modi speak at Madison Square Garden. CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times
“You have given me a lot of love,” Mr. Modi said, as the audience surged to its feet. “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever. I’m very grateful to you. And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”
Outside, where a small crowd protested the prime minister’s handling of the sectarian riots that erupted in Gujarat in 2002 — events that led the United States government to put him under a visa ban in 2005 — Mr. Modi, who now travels on a diplomatic visa, was considerably less popular.
But the protesters had dispersed by the time the arena throngs spilled onto the sidewalk, where the press of Midtown Manhattan traffic and the long, hot wait for transportation did little to cool the fans’ fervor.
“First of all, he is the best prime minister India ever had,” said Suresh Shah, 72, the president of the Indo-American Senior Citizen Association of Bergen County, who wore a Modi T-shirt over his collared shirt and khakis as he waited for the association’s chartered bus back to New Jersey.
“We are very proud of him,” said Jayshree Shah, 64, his wife, who clutched one of the small purple boxes of chutney the event’s organizers had distributed after the event.
“He is, how do you say it, down to the ground,” Mr. Shah added.
“Incorruptible,” said their friend, Arun Bhatia, 70.
“Polite,” Ms. Shah chimed in. “Very simple.”
“And no more red tape,” Mr. Bhatia said.
“The best in my life,” Ms. Shah concluded.
They all beamed.