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.
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.)
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.”