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India’s New Populist Prime Minister Planning a Splashy UN Debut


Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, right, recently welcomed President Xi Jinping of China to India in September 2014.

Not every prime minister, speaking for the first time at the United Nations General Assembly, gets to top that off with a sold-out rally in Madison Square Garden in New York. Narendra Modi, a relatively new face in Indian national politics who became prime minister in May, seems poised to make the most of his first official visit to Manhattan and Washington, D.C., in grand style, thanks to many thousands of adoring Indian-Americans.

The new prime minister, head of the Hindu-based Bharatiya Janata Party, plans to arrive in New York just before his address to the General Assembly on Sept. 27. Later, he will visit the site of the former World Trade Center Twin Towers, or Ground Zero, according to reports in the Indian media, and will also attend a Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, where aides say Modi, who was born poor, will speak for 15 minutes about ending world poverty. The Madison Square Garden extravaganza takes place Sept. 28. And of course he may find time to meet Bill Clinton.

Through all this activity in New York, followed by a trip to Washington, Modi, an ascetic Hindu who is 64, will be nourished only by lemonade, a report from the Reuters news agency in New Delhi said on Sept. 22, quoting aides to the prime minister. He will be observing a 10-day Hindu festival, Navratri, which culminates with Dussehra, a major Indian holiday when a symbolic fire consumes giant effigies of an enemy from ancient Hindu mythology in a celebration of good over evil. Not all Hindus fast, but Modi is a strict adherent to the rituals.

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To the surprise of many in India, Modi, who was elected on a strong platform of economic and social reform, has spent an unexpected amount of time on international travel and entertaining foreign leaders in India. His first trips outside the country were to neighboring Bhutan and Nepal, countries that India traditionally sees as subjects of its regional power and influence. He traveled to Japan in early September for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who promised more investment in India. Soon after, visits to India by Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia and President Xi Jinping of China followed. Modi vows that his policy will be to “look East.”

In New York, however, Modi has chosen to skip several high-level side events for government leaders, including a climate summit, though India, soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, is a major global polluter and victim of natural disasters. India has raised numerous objections to international agreements on emissions.

On Sept 29, he plans to go to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama, whose administration has some tough trade and investment issues to discuss with Modi, who broke the mold of generations of elite, English-speaking prime ministers whom Americans had come to know well. (In his first Independence Day speech in New Delhi in August, Modi offended some ears by talking about the national dearth of toilets and messy government offices with their piles of dusty files and derelict sofas.)

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Indian-Americans tried and failed to land Prime Minister Modi an appearance in Congress, and there will be no state dinner at the White House either.

Modi, a controversial Hindu nationalist within India, but supported in the United States by tens of thousands of like-minded Indian-Americans and fortified by advice from lobbying and public relations firms, was barred from the US from 2005 until after his election this year. The ban followed a 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister before attaining national power.

More than 1,000 Muslims were killed in those attacks by rampaging Hindu nationalist mobs. Considerable evidence from human-rights groups found that while he may not have been to blame personally, Modi, who spent decades in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ultrarightist, militant Hindu organization, did not intervene as the state’s top official to stop the carnage, and even made a few disparaging remarks about Muslim victims.

Since Modi has never apologized for the lapse in governance, it might seem that he still has some explaining to do to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which recommended the travel ban to the State Department. So it was astonishing when Modi, speaking in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN about whether a new Al Qaeda threat to South Asia was serious, dismissed the thought without a shred of sensitivity or a hint of chilling irony. “Indian Muslims will live for India,” he said. “They will die for India.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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India’s New Populist Prime Minister Planning a Splashy UN Debut
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9 years ago

I bet Fareed Zakaria was plased to haer Mr. Modi say “They will die for India.”As a muslim from India, why he didn’t take up on that response from Modi is simply surprising. Here is a man, many in India, including myself believe were responsible for having the state machinery not do its job. As a consequence to that a senior police officer who spoke out years later was dismissed from his job and is now in prison under fabricated crimes. How can any Indian be proud of this man is beyond me!

Barbara Crossette
Barbara Crossette
9 years ago
Reply to  Eeju

Thank you for your comment, Eeju. I think that many people would agree with you.

abhay shah
abhay shah
9 years ago
Reply to  Eeju

Riots of Gujarat started when muslims in godhra burned train carriage with hindu pilgrims of which many were women and children.Riots thus spread across Gujarat.All the courts ,investigative teams etc found chief minister believe he was not responsible.These investigations took place when anti-modi party was in power,they tried their best to stop his rise but millions of indians elected modi to power.
Eeju you are misinformed regarding modi he is a great indian and a human being.

Vinay Shrimali
Vinay Shrimali
9 years ago
Reply to  Eeju

Mr. Narendra Modi is a great personality, He elected by 1.25 billions of Indian public as a Prime Minister of India,which is 1/6 of the total population of entire world.

All investigation agencies already given clearance in Godhra riots. You listen today speech of Mr. Narendra Modi in United nation, He called for concerted international efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and more stable and inclusive global development. He talk about Globalization, growth, source of employment, terrorism, etc.

I thought you misinformed regarding Mr. Modi, he is the popular leader in republic of India.

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