Dozens of world leaders swarm New York each September for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, but few get the kind of rock star greeting that India’s new leader, Narendra Modi, is scheduled to receive on Sunday when he meets his fellow countrymen in Madison Square Garden.
The nearly 20,000-seat arena is typically packed with concertgoers or avid sports fans who can pay up to hundreds of dollars to see top-flight performers.
Sunday’s event is quite different, though. For starters, most seats were assigned by a lottery that drew more than 28,000 applicants, according to organizers (those who didn’t win the lottery can watch a livestream online).
Then there is the main event: an hour-long midday speech by the Prime Minister, who has drawn diaspora interest like no other Indian leader, according to George Abraham, chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, which represents Indians living abroad. By comparison, said Abraham, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress since 1998, has twice come to New York but drew crowds of “about a couple thousand people.”
“This size, for a meeting, you can say it’s the first time,” said Abraham.
It’s also the first time Modi has been allowed to visit the U.S. since he was denied a tourist visa in 2005, on grounds that he was responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The State Department ruling was based on accusations that, as chief minister of Gujarat state in India, Modi bore responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Muslims during riots in 2002.
The 2002 allegations have never gone away, and some Modi opponents have promised opposition protests on Sunday during his Madison Square Garden appearance.
Inside the arena, though, Modi is expected to get an extremely warm welcome. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main rival to the Indian National Congress, won a decisive victory in last May’s general elections with a campaign that promised economic growth and was steeped in Hindu populism.
“He is a great speaker,” said Vinayak Iswaran, 23, a customer in the canteen of a Hindu temple in Flushing. Iswaran immigrated to the United States four years ago from Madras. Listening to Modi’s speeches during this year’s campaign “was almost like Obama, very motivating,” he said.
Paul Singh, a manager of Aanchal, an Indian restaurant in Long Island City, said he would not have voted for Modi in May (Indians in the diaspora could only vote if they went home to do so). But he’s been impressed with the new prime minister’s first months in office. He’s “reached out to the kids, that’s the future of India,” said Singh. And Modi comes from humble origins – like “the majority of the Indian population,” said Singh. “They start as nobody.”
Abraham, the chairman of the think-tank group INOC, which shares the political views of Modi’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress, gave a less enthusiastic review to the new prime minister. Modi is “good at public relations battles,” said Abraham, but now people want to see more action from their new leader. At the end of the day, “where is the meat?” he asked.
Some in the diaspora expect Modi to come with an agenda urging immigrants to return home – or at least to invest in business development in their homeland. In India, more than one fifth of the population lives on less than 55 cents a day, according to government statistics. Many Indians who live and work in the U.S. send regular payments, called remittances, to family at home; in 2012, these remittances totaled almost $12 billion dollars according to Pew Research Center. While remittances alleviate some poverty, they generally do not help with the kind of economic development that could lift up larger communities of people.
While thousands scrambled to get tickets for Sunday’s speech, not everyone in the Indian community here is interested in seeing India’s new leader. “I have no time,” said Goldy Singh who immigrated to the U.S. eight years ago. “Second thing, I don’t like him,” said Singh. Basic rights in India are still influenced by a person’s caste, and “I don’t think Modi will change that.”
At least one group, the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, has encouraged Indians to protest during Modi’s meeting at Madison Square Garden. On a Facebook page, the organization blames Modi for fostering “toxic Hindutva nationalism” and promoting “increased privatization that rely on the disenfranchisement of the poor and the marginalized.” But a few days before the event, just 345 people had indicated on the Facebook page that they would attend the group’s protest.