Modi comes full circle at Madison Square Garden

Indian PM goes from shunned to embraced as he drinks in the love

This article was first published on Sept 30, 2014

NEW YORK - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi basked in a rock star US welcome as he vowed to build a strong, confident country ahead of his first White House summit.

In a huge show of support for a right-wing leader once shunned by Washington, some 18,500 people of Indian origin from across the United States and Canada packed New York's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, chanting his name and wearing T-shirts bearing his picture.

Mr Modi, who was to enjoy a red carpet welcome at the White House later yesterday, renewed campaign pledges to unlock India's economic potential by streamlining bureaucracy.

He hailed Indian Americans for showing an example through their professional successes.

"There was a time when people thought that we were a country of snake-charmers," Mr Modi said.

"Our people used to play with snakes, but now they play with the mouse - and that mouse makes the whole world run."

Mr Modi promised to start lifetime visas for foreigners of Indian origin and, endorsing a proposal of the previous government without setting a date, to issue visas on arrival for US citizens.

"This kind of love has not been given to any Indian leader ever," he said of the reception given him by Indian-Americans.

Calling it a "loan", he added: "I will repay that loan by building the India of your dreams."

Mr Modi, who won India's widest electoral victory in three decades in May, fired back at critics who have urged him to launch quicker reforms as he recalled his humble background running a tea stall as a teenager.

"People ask for a big vision? Well, I got here by selling tea," Mr Modi, speaking for an hour in Hindi without notes, said to thunderous applause.

"I'm a very modest man, and that's why I plan to do big things for modest people," he said, listing promises that include building more toilets and cleaning the Ganges river.

Pointing to US leaders' statements that Asia will dominate the 21st century, he said: "And some say it will be India's century. India has the capacity to achieve that potential."

Sporting a vest in the saffron associated with Hinduism, Mr Modi spoke from a revolving stage in the storied arena that is home to the New York Knicks basketball team and a top destination for big-ticket musicians.

More than 30 US members of Congress took part in the reception that warmed up with Bollywood and traditional dances.

In a touch reminiscent of US political conventions, balloons fell as Mr Modi finished speaking and waved to a crowd that chanted in Hindi: "Long Live Mother India."

While foreign leaders often hold community receptions when visiting the US, an event on the scale of Mr Modi's welcome is exceedingly rare, with only popes packing stadiums.

US-based supporters have campaigned for years to boost the image of Mr Modi, who was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat when it was hit by religious riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. The US refused to grant Mr Modi a visa in 2005 on human rights grounds as a result of the incident.

Clashes broke out again between majority Hindus and minority Muslims in Gujarat last week, after a distorted image posted on social media offended Muslims.

The authorities in the state said yesterday they had arrested more than 200 people.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE