Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi arrived in New York last Friday for a long awaited visit to the United States. On Sunday, Modi addressed a 20,000 strong crowd – mostly comprised of Indian-Americans but also of several important U.S. political figures – in Madison Square Garden. As the sold-out event showed, Modi is extremely popular among Indian-Americans. The term “rock star” was frequently used by the press to describe his status among Indian-Americans. Why is Prime Minister Modi so popular among Indian-Americans? What does he mean to them?
Modi is extremely popular among Indian-Americans, probably more so proportionately than among citizens of India itself. Most Indian-Americans came to the United States for economic and professional opportunities rather than a desire to escape difficult social and political situations. Indian-Americans thus keep in close touch with India, travel to it frequently, and are not alienated from Indian politics and culture. Therefore, they have both the ability and incentive to respond to developments in India rather than remain indifferent to happenings there. This is why Indian-Americans have taken such an active role in welcoming Modi. It would not be surprising if a strong lobby emerges, as Modi wishes, of Indian-Americans advocating for close ties between India and the United States.
Indian-American immigrants (and Indians in general) tend to value hard work, meritocracy, entrepreneurship and self-improvement, traits that were not particularity rewarded in India’s stifling bureaucratic culture, complete with a jungle of laws, patronage, caste-based reservations, corruption, and family-run political outfits. This fostered a culture in India known as chalta hai, which denoted a sort half-hearted acceptance of things as they were. This attitude, which tended to be pervasive in India, incentivized many people to leave India if they could.
In short, Indian-Americans left India mostly because they were fed up with India’s rotten political system, unimpressive economic performance, and the various developmental and social issues deriving from this system. Therefore, it is no surprise that a man like Modi, who promised to change what Indian-Americans don’t like about India, is extremely popular among Indian-Americans.
The question of whether or not Modi will be able to substantially change the course of India’s economy and development is one for the future, and can hardly be answered now. But no matter what happens with India’s economy, Modi will remain popular because he has changed the course of Indian discourse on development and is seen as trying hard to reform India’s system and bring investment to India. It will be hard for India to turn its back on the dialogue of development, rather than welfare or sectarian concerns, now that such rhetoric has resulted in electoral victories. This will make it harder for India shift its focus away from rapid development, which is one of the primary concerns of Indian-Americans.
In addition to the substance of Modi’s thought, his engaging style also makes him extremely popular among Indian-Americans. Indian-Americans are interested in India’s public image and wish to be proud of their ancestral homeland. This is perhaps more true than India’s population as a whole since Indian voters are worried about multiple issues, of which national pride is only one. Indian-Americans tend to be more concerned with India’s global image because whether they like it or not, as an ethnic minority they partially represent Indian culture in the United States. It was therefore a disappointment for many Indian-Americans to see previous Indian governments punch so far below India’s weight in global and diplomatic forums. Modi is widely perceived as being assertive, and then when he speaks, the world pays attention to him. Many Indian-Americans wish for India to be at least as widely respected politically and economically as China. They see Modi’s election as the first step in the process of getting to that stage.
Pride also extends to Indian-Americans’ hopes for India now that Modi is the prime minister. Modi represents a new vision of India that combines nationalism and modernity. Indian-Americans are definitely interested in a nationalistic vision of India as an important world power, though they are less interested in the Hindu-nationalist vision of some members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Nonetheless, they are generally sympathetic towards the party’s vision of Hinduism – as a cultural paradigm advocating religious unity and opposed to ethnic, sectarian, and caste based divisions. This vision appeals to Indian-Americans more than those of a bygone era, the vision of those who continue to view India as some sort of ideal, mystical society or the vision of those still interested in creating a post-colonial leftist country. They want India to take its place among the great powers of the world, economically and politically, as a modern society, albeit one that respects its traditions, but is not defined by them. As Modi himself pointed out, India does not aspire to be known as a land of snake-charmers or as only an informational technology hub. Rather, India’s goal is to develop into a modern, efficient country that thrives in a variety of different fields and industries. This is also what Indian-Americans want. Though the fulfillment of this vision is a long way coming, Modi will always be respected by Indian-Americans for being the first Indian prime minister to express these goals so forcefully and to articulate a vision of India that is much more similar to the ideas of Indian-Americans than his predecessors.