India’s rock-star PM wowed Madison Square Garden—but can he deliver more than a great show?

September 29, 2014

India's Prime Minister Modi speaks at Madison Square Garden in New York


“They used to think of us as snake charmers!” boomed Narendra Modi, shortly after receiving an electrifying welcome at New York City’s Madison Square Garden this Sunday. “Now they know we play with mice, not snakes,” he said, in a well-received reference to India’s booming IT industry.

In his engaging, punchy style, the Indian prime minister wowed the estimated 19,000 supporters, mostly Indian-Americans, who had poured into Manhattan to see the man they affectionately call ‘NaMo.’

Until recently, an event of this kind would have been unthinkable. Modi was banned from entering the United States because of his suspected involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Passersby were reminded of this by protesters carrying posters reading “Wanted: Narendra Modi for Crimes Against Humanity.” Still, his days of being a persona non grata seem behind him now.

The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Obama fever of 2008. The iconography bore an uncanny similarity — official merchandise at the event depicted Modi in the same style as Obama’s “Hope” and “Change” campaign posters. During one part of the speech, one excited audience member even shouted, “Yes, we can!” after Modi called upon his nation to clean up the Ganges River.

But, any favorable comparison to Obama’s glory days also serves as a warning: even the most celebrated politicians can see their popularity plummet if they do not deliver.

Modi, who won in a historic landslide this May, ran on a platform of economic development and growth. Expectations are still soaring. His supporters believe the right-wing Hindu politician can deliver the economic growth seen in Gujarat — the economically thriving state where he served as chief minister for over a decade — to the rest of the country.

To do so, he will need the help of foreign investors, crucial to jump-start India’s flagging economy. According to some estimates, India will need $1 trillion in investments over the next 10 years to fix its creaking infrastructure. Modi, who will be meeting with Google’s Eric Schmidt, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, and others, has high hopes that these cash-rich chief executives will open their wallets for him.

When Modi was chief minister in Gujarat, he had great success in courting India’s largest companies. Modi rolled out the red carpet for businesses, cut red-tape, improved infrastructure and offered lucrative incentives. With this, Modi won their unconditional support.

Anil Ambani, the billionaire chairman of Reliance Group, a leading Indian conglomerate, hailed Modi as a “lord of men, a leader among leaders, a king among kings.”

But Modi may have to wait a long time before he receives this level of praise abroad.

Many foreign investors have been disappointed by Modi so far. A global trade deal was scrapped in August; caps on foreign direct investment, if lower, remain in place and long-awaited cuts to subsidies — which eat away at India’s budget — have been postponed.

The budget, seen as a big indicator of the new economic direction of the country, failed to impress observers. “Nothing that was announced today marks this government out as being significantly different from the last,” said Mark Williams, a chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, as he talked about the budget in July. He added, “If market enthusiasm for Mr. Modi’s government is to be sustained, that will have to change.”

Chris Moore, senior director of the National Association of Manufacturers, recently complained that Modi and his administration say “positive things…but their actions tell a different story.”

Dilip Patel, 38, who travelled in from New Jersey for Modi’s speech at Madison Square Garden, dismissed these concerns. “He has only been a PM for 100 days,” Patel said as he left the event. “If I had to rate him, I would give him top marks. He gets to the office early. He never takes vacation. He even makes sure the bureaucrats come to the office on time. So far, it’s good.”

Right now, there is a huge amount of good will in Modi’s account, deposited by people like Patel and millions like him who support the prime minister. Just getting into work early can win him praise.

Like Obama’s supporters in 2008, they are desperate for change after years of corruption, dynastic politics, and poor governance.

But, foreign investors care little for symbolic change and the feel-good factor. They are waiting to see concrete changes before giving money and support.

And if those changes aren’t made, Modi could end up less popular than Obama is now.

PHOTO: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York, during a visit to the United States, September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson


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Modi is not in not looking for a WTO/foreign-investor stampede that has little regard for anything other than filling themselves the most.

In fact, he is offering bringing trade to US of the order of $5B that may help some here.

He doesn’t need to impress anyone other than work toward greater good of the local communities over time, that he is focused on. Nor does he have much pressure for job creation as the qualified freely migrate and fill the multi-national institutions that migrate jobs offshore.

His resolve on disapproval of WTO’s heavy-handedness in local food controls, should tell you some on his priorities at heart.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Modi’s Make in India slogan is a copy ca attempt at China’s hold on export of its low priced merchandise to the West. It took China a long time to reach at this level. It was the fore sight of Deng Zhou Ping that has brought China to capture markets all over the world including India. India’s resources are going to be occupied in defense with two chronic menace, China and Pakistan, this time combined as India is aligning with Japan, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Good luck Modi. Simultaneously look after the debilitating factions.

Posted by onebookend | Report as abusive

If Modi wants the friendship of America’s middle class, he must withdraw India’s participation in lobbying for the corrupt H1B Visa program.

The H1B Visa Program is displacing American workers, ruining American worker careers and American families, and is destroying the American middle class.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

A humble request to President Obama for not allowing any investment in India till the Indian government is able to fix the internal problems. I find what our Prime Minster is doing is conning people of different countries. They ask countries to invest and then wait for years to get clearances. Many organizations have to pay bribes in the name of lobbying to bureaucrats. The so called “Make in India” drive is nothing but a sham. Local business are closing because the level of corruption are intolerable. Since he became PM he has only been concentrating on two things, foreign travel and his clothes. He is showing people visions but has no clue of how to implement them. Best example of this is the “Clean Ganga Action Plan” submitted by his government to the Supreme Court which was rejected. India is not limited to Gujarat, he has to think Pan India now which is still missing from his vision. Better not waste Tax- Payers money on a country that has no clue how things have to be done.

Posted by Rahulk9 | Report as abusive

It was really a good marketing show by PM Modi. But let’s look beyond the marketing pitch.

65% of Indians are below age 35 — almost 600 million will be in the workforce in next 10 years…India has a bigger unemployment issue to deal with than USA.

On the skill level, only 20-25% of population gets higher education and only 10% has some potential to be part of a global work force. PM Modi is selling “Cheap” goods…and cheap doesn’t mean “Good”. Fact is that Indian economy has tanked and a lot of businesses shut down each day so it needs foreign investment to regrow economy.

If India really has demand and talent, why wouldn’t it first try to be self-sufficient and go to the even next stage and produce even a single world-class company like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Tesla?

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