Saturday, July 2, 2022

Finding Namo

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While Indian-born Americans and TV anchors were full of adulation during the PM’s recent visit, this is unlikely to happen in the gulf, which is mentally equated with labor and blue collar masses

By Bikram Vohra

 I remember the good old days in Ahme-dabad when I was editor of The Indian Express and Narendra Modi was a fledgling politician and we were old buddies and we would meet and chew the fat and eat dhoklas and bhajiyas and go to the club to play tennis and all that.

Not that any of this is true except the first line and I wish I had met him because I would then take full advantage of our former relationship and ensure that my clods of deep and abiding advice get to him. Think of it. One dho-kla away from getting a hearing by jumping the queue and not being one of several strangers petitioning him and getting nowhere in a hurry. Imagine a Page 3 do and you say, just met Namo and he was saying to me…kill a party with that line.


Like with Gulliver, I have followed his travels with great attention. The other day, Prime Minister Modi came to the US. He saw, was seen and most of us have concurred that it was a jolly good show, a sort of political cirque du soleil with all the glamour. A tidy little mix of ex-native guilt and chauvinism brought out a huge crowd of Americans of Indian origin prancing about the place with ill-concealed glee. It made for great TV viewing despite the squad of tedious Indian anchors who did everything possible to mess things up and sho-uld have been given classes in pronunciation before being ferried to the US.

Then, unexpectedly, Modi donned a red coat with white piping and dished out gifts of great largesse. He could have stopped at giving all Americans visas on arrival or, at least, placed a caveat of sorts seeking reciprocal courtesies in some measure. He did not and that should get him some stick, but, in all fairness, it was an exercise shamelessly aimed at giving some
hi-octane boosts to the sagging tourism industry (rape de la rape) and also the “make in India” initiative that makes for lousy grammar, but might spark some flow of currency into Indian corporate adventurism.

And as he spoke, the nation marveled, largely because after Nehru, Krishna Menon and Piloo Mody, the political eloquence of Indians has been a bit drippy and fractured. Manmohan Singh’s 10 years of speechlessness made Modi sound like Mark Anthony at Caesar’s funeral. Rajiv Gandhi did a cameo in his first round, but it petered out (we don’t lean left or right, we stand up straight), while his mother’s lucidity was filtered through strident intimidation.
Consequently, the tea-boy-to-top-gun romanticism prevailed and it was friends, Americans and anyone else who cares to listen.


The UN General Assembly is one of the worst places to give a speech. The atmosphere is dull and dreary, the podium is small and apologetic, there is scarcely anyone in the vast cavern and no one is really listening. You ignite little passion and are often one of a line of speakers on the schedule. Ergo, you are not likely to set the Hudson on fire. The desultory attitude was best reflected in the monotonous introduction of the Indian prime minister. It is done with more passion at a primary school debate.

It was a typical UN speech, short on rhetoric, long on intent and did make one point; it put the UN on guard that if India did not get on to the Security Council, do not expect New Delhi to be an enthusiastic supporter of every UN initiative.
Indian analysts are so imbued by the Indo-Pakistan equation, they see nothing beyond that horizon. Frankly, it was a damp squib and did nothing to soften the impasse of six decades either from the Nawaz Sharif waffle or the easygoing, scarcely intimidating, response from Modi.

I have very little idea why everyone was going so out of whack about Modi’s US trip, like okay nothing is going to happen, shibboleths and soda water, but the awe and reverence on the TV news channels would make you think it was a kind of second coming. The shrill, breathless anchors even spoke in whispers or screaming excitement when they referred to him. Here we go, into reckless adulation again. One guy anchor said: America is waiting with baited breath. Where, in Montana or Dayton, Ohio or Hicksville? Why can’t we keep it in perspective? But TV is now the bridge of perceptions for 1.2 billion people and in India, dangerously inept.

Then again, why not get excited? After all, 40,000 people wanted to enter Madison Squ-are Garden where you can get in 18,000 for a prize fight. Modi beats Madonna. Mayhem at Madison. All good, except for the mildly disquieting impression that everyone was behaving like a poor relative invited to a rich man’s wedding, you are a better man than I, Gunga Din…or is it Barack Obama?


And I finally watched Kaun Banega Crorepati and I have come to the conclusion after profound consideration that Amitabh Bachchan and Narendra Modi speak with the same cadence and inflection. Suspect the Amba-ssador of Gujarat is teaching the PM the intricacies of delivery. Modi is getting to be a classier verbal act. He has mastered the art of the loping rhetoric and the sudden stoppage for effect.

But did he come home empty-handed? NRIs, as opposed to those who watched the tri-colour come down, shed a tear (hopefully) and pledged allegiance to the Star Spangled banner, would be quite teed off that they still have to do the 21-day boot camp to get a visa. US embassies have snaking lines of “hopefuls” wanting to go to Disneyland, their papers clut-ched in sweaty little palms, prepared to go through a series of indignities and sit in dank, dreary rooms, reduced to a number waiting to be called. Is that a balanced relationship? Don’t think so. Even if you fudge the scales. Are people a little confused by the equation between PIOs, Indian-born Americans and NRIs? You bet they are. So was Mr Modi. He called Americans “desh vasiyon”, which they are not.
So NRIs per se, and especially the enclave in the Middle East and the GCC, can’t be expected to do the tango and find grand discoveries in the five-day saga. They are not on the schedule and that irks. You cannot keep getting enthu-sed by the Vyalavar Ravis.

Should Modi now visit these enclaves thick with Indians who still have Indian passports and pay taxes and have PAN cards and Aadhar cards and are accountable to the system? Recognize their worth and channel their talent and signpost the way home for these 10 million high net worth Indians (Gulfees remit $30 billion plus annually) living in the mother country’s vicinity?


Seems like our Marco Polo premier should have these destinations on his itinerary.
Contrary to media perception, the richest Indians globally reside in the Gulf (the top 50 wealthiest Indians are worth $40 billion). Their gatherings would make 18,000 attendees look like a trickle. If he popped over to the Gulf, they would go Pompeii on him and “many a time and oft, stand there on the walls and battlements, their infants in their arms, to see great Modi pass the streets from home.”(mildly paraphrased.)

But would the media set it to music? Un-likely. It is too close, too familiar, not exciting enough. Indian foreign policy has always been grossly shortsighted and the Gulf has mentally been equated with labor and blue collar masses seeking their Johnny Appleseed fortunes.

Then, you get the party poopers who want to hold the fluff in the navel to the light.During the writing of this article, I read a piece by Mrinalini Wasti: “…Frankly, I think the adoration of Mr Modi by NRIs comes from the fact that he so perfectly mirrors their duplicity. In public, he preaches accountability and inclusiveness, while privately condoning the re-writing of textbooks to reflect a Hindu hegemony on history. He champions social media as a sign of his own engagement, but is myste-riously silent on current instances of communal violence and the imprisonment of those who criticize him.

“He is, in short, so familiar to NRIs, who have thrived in America precisely because of equal rights and a certain blindness to ethnicity and religion… a situation which ironically gives them the right to practice an absentee fascism when it comes to their home country….”
My word, we are angry.


These are largely Americans, not NRIs. India is not their home country. Modi is not familiar to us. He is an enigma and we have not fathomed him yet, so don’t jump to conclusions. It is also threadbare an argument to spear NRIs with the guilt of departure. As for America, it would be naïve to assume there are no ethnic and religious divides. Finally, we do not practice absentee fascism, we just see the picture from a different angle, but it is the same picture.
Such lacerating criticism is heavy stuff for what was a nice little PR walk in the park. It was a “nice” week, not deserving of such wrath. And I certainly do not understand the bit about imprisonment of those who attack him. Last heard, India was a democracy and free speech still had a talking part. I need to be educated on this aspect. Does anyone know anyone who has been locked up for tweaking the PM?

Having placed that bit of rage on record, let’s move on. Modi did not come home empty-handed. Behind the garlands and the choreographed bonhomie (except for the incredible rudeness of his sidestepping the lineup of
senators and Congressmen tamely placed on the stage at MSG), there was work being done. He did manage to get more than a rhetorical agreement on sponsored terrorism and
New Delhi and Washington could well have written a leading paragraph that history will recognize as the beginning of the end of a long reign of terror.

The one message that is clear is: We are coming for you.
In the coming weeks, Modi and Obama will strike at specific individual and collective targets and bend a few arms in the region to bring several of the “protected” species to book and if it is just that “positive” which emanates from the visit, so be it…much more effective than a hundred speeches and statements of intent.

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