The crowd that filled nearly every one of the 18,500 seats in Madison Square Garden on Sunday morning watched a dozen performers in black and fluorescent-yellow costumes dance first to a Bollywood song, then to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
It was a fitting combination of Indian and American pop culture, since the Indian-American crowd in the arena has a foot in both cultures. But on Sunday morning, they were mostly bursting with Indian pride as they cheered, clapped and chanted “Long live mother India!” in anticipation of their first in-person glimpse of the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, in the United States.
The green, white and orange of the Indian flag was everywhere, in flower arrangements, on T-shirts that featured Modi images and on the thousands of balloons suspended from the arena’s ceiling. People came from many states and from Canada, chosen by lottery for the precious stadium seats that gave them a face-to-face opportunity to see Modi, elected last May.
Chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” rang through Madison Square Garden in the minutes before the prime minister finally took the stage. He began with a message of gratitude to the Indians in the United States. Without their presence here, he said, “people would have still known India as a nation of snake charmers.”
Modi’s speech at times sounded like he was still on the campaign trail in India. He promised to build houses for every Indian family by 2022, when the country will celebrate 75 years of independence. He vowed to clean the Ganges River and install toilets throughout a country where sanitation is a major public health issue.
But he also showed concern for a key issue in the Indian diaspora in the United States: the delays they or their families can face to get a visa to visit India. That resonated with many in the hall, like Sreekanth, an Indian who now lives in New Jersey and declined to give his full name. Up to now, said Sreekanth, who came to Madison Square Garden with his wife and two daughters, “no one really thought about what to do” about the frustrating visa delays. “But he did, and that gave me a lot of hope.” The prime minister, he said “is very visionary, and made us proud.”
Pride was a common sentiment among the enthusiastic crowd. “I want him to make India the most developed country in the world,” said Gubbi Ranganath, a doctor from Pennsylvania, “and he appears to be the man who can do something. He is a man of action.”
On stage, Modi asked the Indian-Americans to take action, too, encouraging them to stay connected to “our motherland” and inviting them to visit a website on which Indian emigrants can write their suggestions for the country.
“We should all make an effort to pay our loan back to our country, what we owe to it,” he told the crowd. In 2012, Indian-Americans have sent to their country $12 billion in remittances, usually made in small amounts to family members, according to Pew Research Center. Indian-Americans and Indians in India must “join hands to serve India,” and fight for a cause that Modi said was as important as the struggle decades ago for India’s independence: development and growth of modern India.
“Development takes place where there is public participation,” he said. “We should make development a public revolution.”
“I’m small,” Modi said, “that’s why I have the intention to do big things for small people,” like getting rid of “obsolete laws,” to make public administration more efficient.
A relatively small group of Modi opponents outside the arena chanted slogans about his alleged complicity in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujurat, when Modi was the chief executive of that Indian state. But inside, there was no dissent, only a warm, blanket welcome for the new leader, whose high-profile U.S. visit has drawn unusual attention. Achutan Manohar, a member of the organization that planned the Modi event, said India had “so many decades, six decades of one family rule in the country.” Now, said Manohar, there is a fresh start with Modi, and “now there is hope for us to go back.”
At the end of his address, Modi repeated the slogan “Long live mother India,” followed each time by the crowd response: shouts of “Hey!” and closed fists raised high.
As Modi left the Madison Square Garden stage, the orange, green and white balloons were released from the ceiling. The sound of them exploding after they reached the ground crackled for several minutes in the arena.