India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has honed the art of the political spectacle – the rallies, the rousing speeches.
One recent rally in Houston, Texas, attracted 50,000 people, including President Donald Trump. Although Modi supporters with foreign citizenship cannot vote in Indian elections, they do have money, Indians being among the wealthiest immigrant communities in the United States.
It also reflects well on the prime minister when emigrants seen as successful support him, and it all feeds into a well-oiled Modi messaging machine.
If you were India’s prime minister, which images would you rather see on television screens back home; hundreds of farmers descending on New Delhi in protest? Soldiers deployed across a Kashmir in lockdown, trying to keep a lid on a geopolitical powder keg? Crowds of people protesting against you and your party’s ideology and policies?
Or, 50,000 supporters, mostly Indian-Americans, filling a giant stadium and cheering you at your rally? The American president standing alongside, waving at supporters and walking hand in hand with you? Which pictures would you choose?
“Modi is currently besieged on a number of fronts,” says Rohit Chopra, associate professor at Santa Clara University.
“The economy is in a shambles, Kashmiris another burning issue – increasingly, you’re getting a fair amount of negative international attention. So this was a show of strength for Modi.”
The so-called “Howdy Modi!” rally in Houston was just the latest of 15 foreign rallies Modi has headlined since coming to power in 2014.
As prime minister, Modi has travelled out of India nearly 100 times, visiting some 60 countries. Whether it is New York, Johannesburg or Bahrain, he spends an inordinate amount of time on the road with diaspora communities, building political ties, and forging political narratives.
“He’s trying to bring everyone together – you know we might be British, we might be American, but we’re still Indian and have Indian heritage,” says Prerna Bhardwaj, CEO and founder of Vaahan magazine.
“Seeing Prime Minister Modi go out to different countries … it just makes people feel proud to be Indian.”
Nikita Sud, associate professor at the University of Oxford, sees it differently.
“I think Mr Modi and his BJP have understood the power of the diaspora very well and they have been able to tap into this power like nobody else has.”
According to Sud, the message of Modi’s ruling party to Indians abroad is “that India is your motherland and you have gone elsewhere to work, and you can be loyal to both”.
In this year’s general election, the BJP harnessed the diaspora constituency, and it delivered; staging pro-Modi flash mobs in cities around the world and donating dollars, pounds, and other currencies to the cause.
Campaigning in the world’s largest democracy is an expensive business and when it comes to fundraising, the BJP runs circles around its Congress party competition.
But the official reason for all these foreign trips is not to boost the Modi brand; it is to attract more investment in India, boost the country’s exports and iron out better trade deals – and those things have not quite materialised.
Sud calls it the “Modi spectacle”. “The populist leaders of the world coming together and building constituencies through each other … This is about a certain global politics which we all need to keep an eye on.”
Produced by: Meenakshi Ravi
Rohit Chopra – associate professor, Santa Clara University
Prerna Bhardwaj – CEO & founder, Vaahan magazine
Nikita Sud – associate professor, University of Oxford
Radhika Iyer – reporter, NDTV
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