Modi’s enigma fuels hope for many, fear for some

September 29, 2014 12:27 pm | Updated April 20, 2016 06:38 am IST - New York:

Protesters take to the streets in New York City, outside the venue of Prime Minister Modi's reception in Madison Square Garden. Photo: Narayan Lakshman

Protesters take to the streets in New York City, outside the venue of Prime Minister Modi's reception in Madison Square Garden. Photo: Narayan Lakshman

It was literally the ambience of a sold-out rock concert at Madison Square Garden (MSG) on Sunday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to a revolving stage and wowed the Indian-American community off its feet.

With a palpable sense of breathless excitement over the opportunity to see Mr. Modi in person after his long absence from the U.S., conversations with numerous young Indian-Americans in the arena seemed to suggest that it was the Prime Minister’s economic agenda that was the primary source of their optimism.

However, similar discussions with a wide range of organisations protesting against Mr. Modi and his U.S. visit just outside the venue on the street suggested that a very different aspect of the Prime Minister’s agenda was the source of deep concern – his social and political views.

Speaking to The Hindu on the tenth floor of MSG, Suman Narayan, a young Indian-American based in San Jose, California, who had travelled to New York solely to be a part of the festivities here, said that Mr. Modi’s presence in the U.S. had energised the community and created a sense of optimism for the future of India’s role in the world.

While Mr. Narayan expressed confidence that this would lead to more investment into research and development in India, especially if the U.S. looks to capitalise on the change in the Indian Government, he seemed less sure of Mr. Modi’s political or social agendas other than the promise of investment and growth that they held out.

Similarly, another Indian-American, Dhananjay, who hailed from Long Island in New York, and proudly sported a ‘Modi T-shirt’ along with his wife and two children spoke of his interest in bilateral security cooperation, counterterrorism and technology sharing, yet noted that “growth and development,” were the main reasons for supporting Mr. Modi, less so any religious or cultural dimension of Mr. Modi’s political agenda.

However, this very aspect of the BJP’s politics appeared to be a source of concern for people such as Prachi Patankar of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, one among a number of human rights groups that came together under the umbrella of the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA) to spearhead the protests in close proximity of Mr. Modi’s community reception.

Ms. Patankar explained to The Hindu that the message of the AJA, which said in a statement that it represented the 70 per cent of Indians who did not vote for Mr. Modi, was that “Even within 100 days we have seen things that tell us what the future will be like,” and her concern was that Mr. Modi’s development and social model did not protect vulnerable segments and minorities.

For example, she said, since the new government assumed office environmental protections had, in some cases, been rolled back to make way for mining and extraction projects; the “Gujarat model” of development continued to be criticised for not alleviating inequality across income groups; the nutritional status of the girl children in the State was a question mark; and the “reverberations” of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat were felt again during the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and beyond.

“The minorities of India are going to continue to feel the impact of this,” she added, further highlighting that many Indian-Americans felt differently about Mr. Modi because they prioritised the commercial benefits that could accrue from a resurgent economy under him, even if this had not yet happened.

Finally, Dr. Amarjeet Singh of the Khalistan Affairs Centre was leading a large group of Sikh protestors during the latter half of Mr. Modi’s speech, and he said that his community feared the rise of fascist forces in India and wanted to remind America about the allegations made, even by U.S. Congressional commissions, that Mr. Modi was linked to the curbing religious freedoms in India.

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