Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets people outside his hotel in New York (photo: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in New York on Friday on a hectic visit that will see him make his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly, meet President Barack Obama at the White House, speak to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, and have several one-to-one meetings with American business leaders.
Yet none of this would have appeared possible even a year ago. Modi was nominated last September as the opposition BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister. Prior to that, he had been denied a visa to visit the U.S. since 2005, for the anti-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat on his watch as chief minister in 2002.
Modi has denied any responsibility and the Supreme Court has exonerated him in its investigation of the riots.
Once he began his campaign for premiership, the U.S. was slow to recognise that he was the frontrunner and by the time the U.S. ambassador finally met with Modi earlier this year, she was the last of the western ambassadors to break the ice before the election.
Yet Modi himself has indicated that he is pragmatic and would not allow personal feelings to derail an important bilateral relationship. His main mission is to resuscitate the sluggish Indian economy, for which he needs foreign investment and access to technology.
“India will be open and friendly—for business, ideas, research, innovations and travel. In the coming months, you will feel the difference even before you begin your travel to India,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Modi’s other key objective during his visit is to revive Indo-U.S. ties, which have looked special on paper, but have not lived up to their top billing after Obama visited Delhi in 2010 and hailed “the defining relationship of the 21st century”.
Both countries have different perceptions of the next steps required in Afghanistan, as India is worried about the fallout of America’s withdrawal on the security of the region.
Yet Modi has signalled that India and the U.S. have much to offer each other.
“The United States is our natural global partner,” Modi wrote on Thursday. “India and the U.S. have a fundamental stake in each other's success—for the sake of our values and our many shared interests,” he noted.
The Pentagon has reportedly offered to jointly develop or manufacture 34 state-of-the-art weapon systems with India, including the Javelin anti-tank missile.
Modi has called for a strong domestic defence industry and his administration recently increased the level of foreign investment allowed in the defence sector to 49 percent, specifically to attract foreign manufacturers willing to transfer technology.
The prime minister is also expected to reach out to the Indian community in the U.S., where he will be feted at several events.
According to Reuters, Modi will draw perhaps the largest crowd ever by a foreign leader on American soil when he takes the stage at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to speak to a crowd of over 18,000 people.
Thousands more are expected to pack Times Square to watch his address in Hindi on big screens.