The Congress criticism of Narendra Modi‘s successful second visit to the US should be seen as an indirect endorsement that he is on the right track. Among other things, Congress spokesman Anand Sharma accused Modi of faking his poverty, of insulting his mother by ignoring her when he was Gujarat CM, of spending millions on his US public appearances, and for his penchant for dressing well.
Regardless of whether Sharma is right or wrong, he is actually acknowledging something that should be clear to everyone: Modi is the best brand ambassador and country salesman India has ever had. He is able to connect not only with the diaspora but also with powerful Americans like no other Indian Prime Minister could – not Nehru, not Indira Gandhi not even erudite Manmohan Singh. America probably sees Modi as more representative of India than any other Indian leader in the past barring possibly Mahatma Gandhi.
Sure, domestic critics will say Modi is doing nothing more than play to the domestic gallery by using the diaspora to appear popular in America. However, the fact is this makes a difference to how Americans perceive India. Indian Americans are some of the most successful businessmen and professionals in the US, and if they can be swayed by Modi, it is tantamount making to a power statement to America as well.
To be sure, the American interest in India – whether that of politicians or businessmen – is driven by a convergence of geopolitical and business interest and would have been there even without Modi’s charisma. But Modi captures the modern Indian gung-ho spirit that Americans vibe well with. Modi’s soft power is something every American understands; it is exactly the way Americans would themselves project America, through a mix of hard and soft power, garnished by showmanship and a salesman’s instinct.
The problem with the Indo-US relationship in the past has been that it was driven by a peculiar mix of political moralising combined with an undertone of inferiority and hypocrisy that our leaders exuded. Nehru, despite the importance he was given by US presidents post-independence, was more pro-Communist and Left than the Americans could stomach. He exuded soft power, given his popularity in India and the third world, but he was also a wishy-washy purveyor of empty idealism that the Americans saw as empty posturing.
Indira Gandhi was made of sterner stuff, but her decision to align Indian interests with those of the former Soviet Union could not have endeared herself to any American President – Republican or Democrat. Manmohan Singh was respected as a PM with reformist credentials earned under PV Narasimha Rao, but he too was ultimately seen as a Sonia Gandhi puppet, and not the final word on Indian policy.
It was only under Atal Behari Vajpayee, thanks additionally to India’s efforts on Y2K and the 9/11 attacks on American soil, that the US saw India as vital to its interests. This is why despite Pokharan 2 and American sanctions, Bill Clinton made strong overtures to India through the Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh dialogue. And George Bush pushed the India axis forward after 9/11.
If Modi is now taking India’s prestige in America to new heights, as evidenced by the power-list of USA Inc and Silicon Valley that had gathered to schmooze with him (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, John Chambers, etc), it is because he is seen differently from his predecessors. He is someone who authentically represents Indian-ness without being too judgmental about what the west stands for. He is comfortable in his skin without sacrificing modernity. He is happy partnering the best of the west without feeling inferior to them.
This is why America is warming to the man who, till the other day, was treated like a pariah, and a part of a rabid Hindutva fringe.
At this stage, it is also important to recognise a curious alliance at work against Indian interests. The Christian evangelical right in America and the Indian Left (which includes the intellectual class, the Congress and other Left-wing parties) have been anti-BJP, even anti-Hindu, in trying to prevent a realistic alliance of India and the US.
The Christian right sees the BJP as a roadblock in its attempts at religious conversion, and thus has had a vested interest in painting Modi and his party in the vilest possible terms. The existence of several fringe and reactionary elements in the Sangh parivar helped them embellish this prejudice with US policymakers. As for the Congress and Indian Left, for reasons related to securing the domestic Muslim vote and for preventing a natural convergence of Indian and American interests, it became necessary to paint the BJP as intensely communal and inimical to the Christian west.
However, the reality in America is different. There are many more democratic elements opposed to the hard-right Christian lobby than there are supporters. But Modi’s success is not due to these elements; we have to understand the subtle soft power of India in the US to explain why he is more successful than other leaders in wooing Uncle Sam.
The truth is that modern America – despite being largely Christian in character – has been subtly moving away from dogmatic religion. In fact, all the key American philosophers who represent the soul of that country were also influenced by Vedantic ideas from India from the 19th century – and this also makes them more receptive to the idea of a Modi, once the blinkers inserted by the evangelical lobby are removed.
Three of America’s greatest philosopher-sages – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman – drew a lot of their inspiration from Vedantic ideas, where direct spiritual experience is valued more than dogmatic learning about virgin birth, resurrection and miracles. Thanks to these three, American Christianity is today far more imbued with Vedantic ideas than ever – and the ubiquitous nature of yoga is just an outward manifestation of this reality.
You don’t have to take my word for this, for I came to these conclusions after reading Philip Goldberg’s informative book American Veda. He explains why many Americans experienced an ‘aha’ moment upon hearing Vedanta philosophy for the first time. It offered a way of understanding the divine that did not offend their sense of reason or require faith in the miraculous. It was experience-oriented, not belief-oriented.” Even more important, the Indian gurus and philosophers who made America their home – from Paramahamsa Yogananda to Maharshi Mahesh Yogi to Deepak Chopra in modern times – did not emphasise the need for seekers to abandon their belief in Christianity in order to open their minds to Vedanta.
This digression into Vedanta is necessary to understand why Modi is now making an impact in America after more than a decade of media and evangelical vilification. Modi is one of the few Indian leaders they are coming to see as authentic, someone who speaks to them in their own language of hard and soft power.
Nehru, and the Left intellectuals he encouraged, never warmed up to their Indian-ness. They were effectively dismissive of Hinduism in an America that was actually open to Vedantic ideas. Evidence of this came up even during Modi’s visit, when Mark Zuckerberg talked about his trip to India on the advice of Steve Jobs. Modi is believable to Americans because, unlike the Congress-Left class, he hasn’t been ashamed of his origins. Americans respect those who respect themselves.
But Modi is not just about Indian culture and the past. His language, his attitude, his tech-savviness, his showmanship and marketing abilities demonstrate to the Americans that he has mastered some of the things that they themselves excel in. He is not a self-denying sadhu, or the typical Indian driven by fake humility. He is success-oriented, and Americans worship success more than anything else. The frequent change of attire that the Congress criticises Modi for is nothing but a demonstration to the Americans that he is serious about projecting success. In the American lexicon, marketing oneself is no sin.
If Modi is making an impact in America, it is because he has bridged the east-west divide in terms of understanding what makes western modernity tick even while remaining rooted in his Indian self.
It is not easy to judge the impact of Modi visit only in terms of the investments he gets into India; his long-term impact on American perceptions about India will be more important than the dollars he gets to flow India’s way in the short-run.