Modi at Madison Square Garden: The Economist can do better than this

The Economist, off late, appears to be doing everything in its power to earn the ire of decent people everywhere. On Monday, it published its account of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to New York City. My gripe with this piece is not that it offends even the most marginally nationalist Indians. Instead, it is that by adopting the tone that it did, it de-emphasized some important observations in the rest of the piece, and forsook the chance to make other, more substantial critiques of Sunday’s show.

The paragraph below was the first to cause much consternation:

“Inside are over 18,000 Indian-Americans, as prosperous and upstanding a diaspora as you will find from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. They are willing themselves into the kind of obedient hysteria they were meant to have left behind generations ago in the badlands of Asia, along with hunger and snakes.”

The consternation is not entirely unjustified or particularly surprising. That India is the land of snake charmers is a stereotype that Indians who’d skim The Economist are especially keen to shake off, so much so that Modi brings it up every time he speaks. To liken the 18,000-strong crowd to cattle is also a poor way of making an important point: Modi has made it a habit to play rockstar only in front of audiences carefully curated to be uncritical. This is evident in large performances of the Madison Square Garden variety. It’s equally evident in his practice of engaging with the electorate primarily through Twitter, a medium not conducive to critical engagement. This point was indeed made, but was lost in the cloud of poor humor and snark surrounding it.

“But since elections in May, India has been run by Mr Modi. He is, this adoring crowd believes, India’s Margaret Thatcher or Lee Kuan Yew. In time he will make India a success, not a continent-sized embarrassment; and the augury of that triumph is this show, slickly choreographed and punctuated by adoring Twitter messages shown on giant screens.”

Next, the writer proceeds to confusingly describe the crowd’s attitude towards Modi. It’s not clear whether she/he is suggesting that the crowd thinks that India today is a “continent-sized embarrassment” or if she/he thinks that it is so. If it’s the former, the writer is simply wrong. I share the writer’s displeasure at the kitschy show. But its obvious popularity with the crowd suggested that on display was a representation of India, however much the author and I may dislike it, that large portions of those gathered were proud of. If it’s the second, then the writer has succeeded in offending the sensibilities of even those who nourish a nationalism widely divergent from that of Modi and his followers. Bottom line; when you’re writing about people who care enough about their country of origin to journey far to hear its traveling Prime Minister, “embarrassment” is unlikely to be a feeling they immediately associate with the Motherland. By this point in the article, it doesn't matter whether the author moves on to say more sensible things, the game is lost; any talk about this piece will be about the insensitivity of the piece rather than Mr. Modi’s shortcomings.

“And suddenly, just after mid-day, Mr Modi is standing on the same floodlit spot where Mick Jagger probably sang “Sympathy for the Devil”. Mr Modi ignores the dignitaries completely: idiots. He looks around the crowd smiling, savouring it all. After riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 in which at least a thousand people, mainly Muslims, were killed, Mr Modi, then the state’s chief minister, was banned from travelling to America. American officials called him a monster, a demagogue, a fanatic. Now they close down Manhattan’s streets for him, and America’s politicians stand here as his stage props. Sweeter still, Mr Modi’s acceptability is not a product of his remorse or decisive acquittal, but of his power: winning an election in a country of 1.25 billion people.”

Missed Opportunity #1: Days ahead of the Indian general election which brought Modi to power, The Economist published a resigned, yet admirable, editorial which acknowledged that Modi was going to be elected and was the better of the two candidates but that the newspaper simply could not endorse him unless he had changed his views on the place of Muslims in India. The Economist, in this recent piece, had an opportunity to remind its readers that Mr. Modi has maintained a stolid silence on the Gujarat violence since he became Prime Minister.

More importantly, the newspaper had an opportunity to make a much larger point about how the case of Narendra Modi provides an excellent example of the frailty of principle in American foreign policy. Everyone understands the following three things: 1. diplomacy requires engaging with figures you may, in your head, dislike, 2. no administration should be completely bound to the foreign policy decisions of its predecessors and 3. a country’s diplomatic posturing is influenced in large part by the demands of domestic, politically important constituencies. Despite those three ‘facts’ of diplomacy, the US’ about-face is astonishing as it pretends that the visa-denial episode simply did not happen. There was clearly a considered decision made by the Bush Administration, the American electorate deserves to know why its leaders are now breaking all sorts of protocol in welcoming and flattering Mr. Modi.

““You have given me a lot of love,” Mr Modi cries. “This kind of love has never been given to an Indian leader before! And I will repay you by forming an India of your dreams!” Huge swarms of balloons tumble from the rafters. Mr Modi walks off the stage.”

Missed Opportunity #2: In addition to the quote above, Mr. Modi made multiple references to the role played by the Indian diaspora in his victory. He thanked them for taking time off from work and working for his campaign in India’s villages. I’m sure these toiling, patriotic folk were tremendously important foot-soldiers, but let’s not dance around the fact that their contributions included more than their time. India’s May election was marked by the immense dispensing of treasure. That treasure, almost wholly unaccounted for, had to come from somewhere. At least some fraction of the 18,000 who graced Madison Square Garden on Sunday had also opened their checkbooks for Mr. Modi. The Economist itself had chimed in the sordid world of Indian campaign finance in May, concluding that if firms released information on whom they were funding, “they would be giving the ordinary voter something very valuable indeed.”

There was so much that Narendra Modi gave us to talk about; about the iron-grip of certain constituencies on leaders in both India and the US, about the forgetfulness of diplomats, about the opacity of campaign finance in both India and the US, about Modi’s repeated assertion that he spoke for 1.25 billion Indians when less than half actually voted for him. Instead, The Economist chose to take random potshots that I’m sure produced much giggling in the newsroom. Outside of it, they only succeeded in once again needlessly making the newspaper the story rather than the harbinger of one.

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