The new Indian leader is as controversial as he is popular, and many still remember his inaction during 2002 riots.
If Indians living in the United States had been allowed to vote in this year’s Indian elections, says Bharat Barai, “Narendra Modi probably would’ve gotten an 85-to-90-percent vote — far better than he got in India.”
Barai is the chief organizer of a reception for the new prime minister, to be held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Sept. 28; the free tickets were snapped up in a matter of weeks. This will be Modi’s first visit to the United States since the U.S. Congress denied him a visa in 2005 for failing to protect religious freedom during riots in 2002 in the western Indian state of Gujarat, during which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed. The visa decision was reversed earlier this year after Modi’s political party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, swept the Indian elections in May.
Now Modi’s upcoming visit is exposing a political divide in the Indian-American community. While the Indian American Community Foundation, the organizer of the Madison Square Garden reception, is pulling out all the stops for the event — which will have upward of 20,000 attendees and live telecasts in Times Square and online — a coalition of progressive South Asian and civil-rights groups is planning a protest outside the venue. For most Indians in the United States, Modi’s ascent signifies a more powerful role for India on the world stage, especially economically. But a determined minority is keeping the memory of the riots alive and raising questions about what a divisive government means for India’s secular identity.
I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.
I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.
To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.
As freshly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet make their first visits abroad, many analysts argue India’s new government seems intent to “go regional” in order to boost India’s international profile. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony included invitations to every single SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Corporation) nation, including an historic first-time visit from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His first visit abroad was to Bhutan (where he had an “oops moment” and accidentally referred to the country as “Nepal” while addressing the Bhutan Parliament). Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently returned from visiting Bangladesh, a visit that’s also been touted as an “effective model of development” for strengthening ties throughout India’s South Asian neighborhood.
But as Indian columnist Nilanjana S. Roy writes, Modi’s inclination to reach out to regional neighbors isn’t just a sign of India looking outward — it’s also reflective of India’s search for a stronger Indian identity, and an inherent suspicion of the West:
This week, India celebrated the 39th anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency, the 21-month long period under which then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi virtually made India a police state in order to seize all control in the country and rule by decree. “All the fundamental rights were suspended, politicians were arrested and a heavy censorship was imposed on the media,” Mahak Raigarhia writes in DNA India.
When Narendra Modi of the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sworn in as India’s newest prime minister on May 26, political observers — and language enthusiasts — started speculating whether his rule would lead to a renewed interest in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India’s Brahmin scholars. At least two dozen newly elected members of Parliament took their oaths in Sanskrit, Hari Kumar of the New York Times reported. The language is widely backed by the Hindu right wing, which helped Modi come to power (the BJP is a spawn of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer Hindu nationalist group).
Hindu nationalists “see the language as a link to a civilization uncorrupted by Persian-speaking Muslim emperors and English-speaking British viceroys,” the New York Times’ Ellen Barry wrote in a letter to readers. “Early independence leaders had hoped to phase out English as an official language, but that provoked widespread protests in the country’s south, where Hindi is not widely spoken.” Hindi and English are both considered official languages in India.
Now, just less than a month since the new government came to power, the focus has shifted away from Sanskrit and onto one of its language descendants: Hindi.
It was barely 6 AM, but the vast park in the center of Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was already bustling with people taking advantage of the early morning cool before the stifling May heat set in.
Children were playing on the trim grass, swings, and miniature rock walls. Adults dressed in tracksuits and salwar kameezes were walking briskly on the cement path.
And secluded in a corner of the morning hustle, in plain sight to anyone who cared to cast a glance, a group of five men were performing their morning drills. They began with simple stretches.
The bulk of these pieces focus on how startling Narendra Modi’s defeat over Rahul Gandhi was, and the root causes behind it. As Modi gets ready to become inaugurated this coming Monday, however, the topic has moved quickly from domestic concerns to international ones — just what might India’s foreign policy look like under Modi?
Gulseer, who goes by one name, is about 34 or 35 years old. His exact age has escaped him. He’s been married to his wife, Ayesha, for the past 10 to 15 years. The exact duration of their marriage has escaped him too.
But as he woke up from a nap on the dusty veranda outside his family’s modest home in Barowalia village in the state of Uttar Pradesh last week, he told me one thing he is sure of — his unwavering support for Rahul Gandhi and India’s National Congress Party, which has governed India for 55 of the last 67 years. “It’s been like this since I was born,” he said, shoving a bidi into his mouth. “Whether Congress will win or lose, I’m going to vote for Rahul. Because he keeps coming here.”
As of writing, not all the results have been released yet, but it’s obvious Narendra Modi will be the country’s next prime minister, and may even win an outright majority in parliament without the need for coalition partners. The Bharatiya Janata Party has already created a victory wall of tweets using the hashtag #CongratsNaMo.
Voting during the Indian elections lasts an exhaustive six weeks, but election fever was already in the air — and online — long before polls opened on April 7. In what’s widely being hailed as India’s first social media election, regular news reports and commentaries were joined by a number of websites and online parodies that popped up to poke fun at the elections.