US visit a boon to Modi's image

This article was first published on Oct 2, 2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States may have reinvigorated the ties between the two governments, but the trip will likely be remembered more for its impact on the Indian diaspora here.

Never before has a visiting Indian leader courted the overseas Indian community in the way Mr Modi has done, say analysts, noting that the populist leader considers the demographic a key plank of both his US policy and his bid to boost Indian economic growth.

"He thinks about them as part of India's global influence and also part of the Indian global community," Dr Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, told The Straits Times.

"He would like them to come and contribute in India but he also sees them playing a role in shaping India-US relations."

Mr Modi was quite the showman during his visit, drawing large crowds when he spoke at Central Park and Madison Square Garden in New York. At the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, he was introduced by actor Hugh Jackman. To top it off, he also announced that he will ease visa restrictions for Indians in the US to travel to India.

There are some three million people of Indian origin living in the US, and they include prominent businessmen. Mr Modi hopes that by boosting the ties of the Indian community with their home country, he would also draw more investment back to India.

Mr Michael Kugelman, senior programme associate for South and South-east Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said there is a political upside to Mr Modi's tapping of the Indian community.

"I think Modi's grand spectacles in New York had two purposes. One was to engage the Indian diaspora - a large demographic that has a major lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. The other purpose was to showcase to Americans more broadly what Modi - a figure unfamiliar to many in this country - is all about," he said.

And while the Indian PM did not need to convince anyone of his popularity, given his thumping victory in the general election this year, Mr Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council, said the large crowds would have hammered home the message to the US that it is dealing with a media-savvy leader "unencumbered by the obstacles faced by his predecessors".

Experts also agree that the grand spectacles would have been a boon to his image in India. "Clearly the Indian media projected all this extremely favourably from all accounts, so it strengthens his position at home at the same time," said Mr Nawaz.

As a whole, most consider the first visit by Mr Modi to the US a success, even if his meetings with US President Barack Obama yielded more statements of intent than any concrete agreements.

Experts say the real work starts when Mr Modi's honeymoon period ends. Said Mr Kugelman: "All too often in international diplomacy, leadership changes beget honeymoon periods and sky-high optimism - before reality sets in... The good news is that Modi's visit has essetially been one giant confidence-building measure. It can now be used as a springboard for bringing bigger and better things to the US-India relationship."