Monday, September 29, 2014

Modi San at Madison

If the title sounds cheesy, it is just the after effect of an oratorical masterpiece dealing in a lot of superlatives and rhetoric. As is my ears still ringing with the ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ chants of the crowd. And what a crowd it was! A packed Madison Square Garden! Not since the heyday of Sachin Tendulkar, have I witnessed a crowd whipped in such maniacal frenzy over an individual. The dances and cultural performances which came before barely registered - sometimes because, and mostly despite, the quality of the show on offer. Try replacing Dravid or Sehwag with L Subramaniam, except that this virtuoso performer was reduced to being a sidekick akin to Vikram Rathore or SS Das. Although, rather strangely, the same crowd cheered louder for Swami Vivekananda than for either Gandhi or Nehru. Twice.

The patriotic chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘Vande Mataram’ would prove to be as misleading as those of ‘Indiiaaa, Indiiaaa’ when the second wicket partnership is going great guns in a test match at the Wankhede or Feroz Shah Kotla. You would be na├»ve to think the crowd was there to watch a masterful performance from the rest of the Indian team. They are there to witness their (demi)God bat. (Why else would crowds be so low on the days when India is bowling or if Sachin had gotten out the previous evening?). In much the same way, the crowds at Madison square were there to hear their beloved Modi, not their Prime Minister. 

As for his speech, imagine the Undertaker, at this very venue, getting ready to execute the ‘Choke slam’ and the crowd baying for the opponent’s blood. Now imagine the Undertaker executing a ‘Choke slam-a-minute’ for an hour and a half with the crowd also not wavering in its intensity. Now you know how it felt. This is not to say that the crowd did not laugh. They laughed readily at Modi’s jokes, both the old and the new. And they laughed right in the middle of the American national anthem.

In sport, when someone performs really well against a terrible opponent, or in a favorable environment, the defense is ‘you can only play against what you’ve got’. That is the defense I am going to opt for Modi today. He is an outstanding orator. A man with the ability to read not just the pulse, but also the minds of the audience in front of him. He has charmed millions and millions across the country, from diverse communities and geographies. Twenty thousand NRIs reminiscing about home, and given a rare opportunity to feel proud of their leader, were not going to be too hard to be swayed. And he wasted no time in doing so. Starting by hiking the morale and ego, by praising the historic role of NRIs in elevating India’s self-esteem and positioning himself as just a common man out on a historic mission, he quickly won the crowd over. They had possibly even toppled over for when he quickly differentiated the NRIs as ‘you folks’  and him and the rest as ‘us Indians’, no pride bubble was pricked.

The most solid announcements he would make in a 90 minute speech would be OCI-PIO merger, lifetime visa and visa-on-arrival. Most of these were efforts started by the previous government. Modi, of course, deserves the credit to have the conviction and determination to carry it through. If only we were so generous of our praise of Manmohan Singh and UPA 1, instead of deriding their achievements as NDA 1’s hangover. 

He continued to work the crowd, often lifting jokes from the internet to thunderous applause. He got a louder cheer when he termed Gandhi as an NRI. Imagine the collective delight of 20,000 Non-Resident Indians when he compared us with one of the greatest that ever lived. If this was not a lesson in how to work a crowd, nothing else is. And he would constantly refer to Gandhi, only so as to use him as a pedestal to weave in his own story and ideas. No other leader would deserve a mention. It was as if he wanted to position himself next to and, maybe in the future, above Gandhi in the pantheon of Indian leaders. As if to drive home the point further, he would later mention how no other leader in the last 15 years had gotten the kind of love that he has gotten. A period of 15 years, which conveniently includes 5 years of a much loved, truly great leader from his own party.

A well deserved round of approval through applause came when Modi veered on the subject of a ‘Clean India’. It takes guts for a Prime Minister to shame his citizens into action on such a hygiene issue. But we deserved the berating we got from the leader of our country. If this does not push us into action, nothing will.

He also got a heavy round of applause when he spoke of dismantling old laws. Almost all of them. One each day, so that he can sleep peacefully. Eerie?  Not if you believed the crowd. If the decibel levels at MSG translated to similar approval levels back home, it would appear that most Indians believed that we were being tricked for 67 years with stupid laws and that we may even need a new Constitution. Such seems to be the blatant disregard for many years of development - four and a half of them under Vajpayee’s NDA. Vajpayee remains a favorite PM for many of us, and one of the many positive side effects of this election was his elevation in the eyes of the majority as a PM that the country needed, but did not deserve given how the party was defeated in 2004. Speaking of which, I am beginning to wonder how history and the Indians would have judged Manmohan Singh if he had, retrospectively fortuitously, served only one term? As a great leader who delivered more than 8% growth year on year, completed the spectacular rise of telecom and one who stood his ground to get his way on the nuclear deal, maybe?

I wonder how history will judge Modi as a PM, in 5 years’ time, and in all likelihood again in 10 years’ time. In the meanwhile, I will wonder how you judged this article. And me.

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