With some 140 heads of state and government in town for the UN General Assembly, there has been no shortage of VIPs in New York this past week. But there is one foreign leader whose visit has been anticipated more than any other: Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister. Modi’s current U.S. trip is his international coming out party, and he is making the most of it.
Even the New York Times, which has not traditionally been kind to Modi, acknowledged that he has received a “rock star reception” in New York — and that was before Modi’s triumphant star turn Sunday before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. A reported 50 U.S. Senators and House members leapt at the opportunity to appear onstage with Modi just before his address. The raucous crowd consisted mostly of “NRIs” (non-resident Indians), the term used to describe people of Indian origin living outside of India. Respected Indian journalist Kanchan Gupta, not one prone to hyperbole, likened the crowd’s excitement to the “Beatlemania” that had swept the city exactly 50 years earlier. A huge crowd of Modi fans who were unable to get tickets gathered at Times Square, where Modi’s speech was broadcast live on a big screen. Thousands more attended viewing parties around the country. With extensive live coverage in India, accessible online throughout the Indian diaspora, Modi’s speech on Sunday was clearly a major international event.
U.S. politicians are smart enough to recognize that Modi, notwithstanding all the negative coverage he’s received from the liberal media, is a phenomenon like no other Indian prime minister in recent memory. That is why American politicians are falling over themselves to be photographed with him. Even New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose ideological profile would seem to put him squarely in tune with Modi’s knee-jerk leftist detractors, seemed positively giddy to get a photo op with India’s new prime minister.
Modi’s supporters believe that the qualities they ascribe to him — vision, patriotism, cultural self-confidence, toughness, compassion, affinity for the private sector, commitment to good governance — will enable him to lead India to greater prosperity at home, more power and influence abroad. They envision a Modi-led India that refuses to be pushed around, and that reinvigorates their pride in their homeland and culture.
The expectations that Modi’s supporters have for him may seem dauntingly high, but Modi shows little desire to manage those expectations. At his Madison Square Garden speech, Modi proclaimed that India would lead the world in the 21st Century because of her three great strengths: “democracy, demographic dividend, and demand.” India is, of course, the world’s largest democracy. As for its “demographic dividend,” Modi notes that India, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, has one of its youngest workforces: It has 800 million people (65 percent of its population) under the age of 35. Modi touts the great productive capacity of India’s workforce in his new “Make in India” campaign, which seeks to make India a world manufacturing leader. And, following China’s development model, Modi intends to use the demand arising from India’s large, economically advancing population as bait to attract foreign investment. (The UN estimates that India will surpass China as the world’s most populous nation in less than 15 years.) With these advantages, Modi contends that India is ready for “rapid, responsible” economic development.
Drawing on his humble background as a poor “chai wallah” (tea seller), Modi speaks passionately about how economic development can lift people out of poverty. He has launched an ambitious campaign to make toilets and other sanitation facilities universally available throughout India. And he has set 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, as his target for ensuring that every Indian has a home to live in.
Modi has now arrived in Washington, where he will break bread with President Obama. (Modi will not literally “break bread” during his dinner with Obama, because he is observing a strict fast for the Hindu festival of Navratri.) While their dinner will almost certainly be cordial, don’t expect the two leaders to emerge from it with a strong personal bond. In countless ways, both profound and superficial, Modi is the polar opposite of Obama.
The Indian prime minister has, at his core, a cultural self-assurance that Obama lacks. While Obama, at his best, is capable of celebrating America’s strengths with eloquence, he has a frustrating ambivalence about the country he leads. The most recent example was Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week, where he inexplicably felt compelled to bring up recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri to balance his criticism of ISIS atrocities. Obama was attempting to demonstrate that America is capable of acknowledging its own shortcomings, but the juxtaposition of Ferguson with ISIS was a jarring, gratuitous, inappropriate non-sequitur that undercut his urgent call to fight extremism. It is impossible to imagine Modi standing before a world body and being needlessly apologetic about India.
Modi is a compelling extemporaneous speaker, as he proved again during his scriptless tour de force at Madison Square Garden. Obama, while still capable of giving a great speech, is famously reliant on his teleprompter. But more importantly, Obama’s effectiveness as a speaker has been diminished by the distressing number of times that his words have ultimately proven to be untrustworthy. The public record is now littered with Obama’s misrepresentations and broken promises on Obamacare, on “red lines” in Syria, on Benghazi, on corruption at the IRS (“not a smidgeon”!), and on countless other matters. Obama increasingly appears to be a compulsive talker who says whatever he feels he needs to say to achieve an immediate objective or get out of an immediate jam.
Modi, on the other hand, has a reputation for delivering on his promises. As the workaholic chief minister (governor) of the state of Gujarat, he developed a reputation as an engaged, hands-on manager who is able to get things done. Obama, with his parade of train wrecks from Obamacare to the Veterans Affairs scandal, has been anything but an effective manager. Obama is seen by his harshest critics as a style-over-substance president who enjoys the perks of the job — partying with celebrities, for example — more than the job itself. Modi, in contrast, leads a lifestyle that is simple, even austere. And while Modi receives some of the same “rock star” adulation that Obama receives, it is not because he has Obama-style “cool”; it is because he is perceived to have wisdom, gravitas, competence, decisiveness, and strong core convictions.
Obama’s rise to power was fueled by a fawning liberal press. Modi, on the other hand, rose to power in spite of the hostility of India’s mainstream press — a press that, consciously or unconsciously, tends to borrow its sensibilities from its liberal counterparts in the West.
Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissel recently offered her own comparison between Modi and Obama. Listening to one of Modi’s recent speeches, she tweeted: “Struck by how hopeful a vision he has for his country. Miss that here in America in the doleful Obama era.”
We don’t yet know how successful Modi will be in realizing his hopeful vision for India. What we do know is that exceptional leadership can fill people with pride and confidence, and inspire them to strive for great things. India desperately needs that type of leadership. And so does America.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.