Current Events: Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Eli Lefcowitz, Staff Assistant and Staff Writer

On a warm September day, 22,000 people, including me, pack a sold-out Madison Square Garden, chanting the name of their beloved celebrity. This wasn’t a rock concert, sports game, or circus. Rather, it was a speech given by a foreign politician:  the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. His rock-star reception in the USA has generally been applauded, but it is not without controversy.
Before the speech began, there was much pageantry: multiple dance acts, a laser light show, and a speed-painting of Modi. Every few minutes, chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” would echo throughout the arena. During this, I wondered how people could adore a leader when he has only been in power a few months, and has yet to make a significant impact. The speech, which lasted one hour, was entirely in Hindi. There were subtitles on the Jumbotron, but they were delayed to the point where people around me would be laughing and cheering, and I wouldn’t understand why until they had stopped. 
Modi promised that India would rise to power. He made it clear that Indians living in the US would be welcome to return to India and assist in the effort to improve the country. He stressed the need for strong ties between the USA and India, saying that America was one of few countries with such a great political potential. Modi, a skilled speaker, charmed and related to the crowd, occasionally diverging from his agenda to make jokes and tell anecdotes.
Upon arrival to Madison Square Garden, my grandfather and I stood on line for over an hour to enter the arena. While on line, I interviewed Jay Bhattacharya, a 28-year-old Indian working as an engineer. “Mr. Modi is hope for me and my country,” he said. “I want to return to India to witness the change.” As I talked to more people they all conveyed the same message: Prime Minister Modi was a symbol of how anyone can be successful. He sold chai tea at train stations as a boy, but through hard work he became a leader.
Across the street, there was a different attitude. There were over a hundred people protesting Modi’s speech. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, a state where there were three days of widespread religious riots and violence towards Muslims. Modi was accused of inaction while over 2,000 Muslims died over a period of three months in 2002. “This man allowed the murder of many innocent children, while thousands of people are treating him like a rock star and a hero,” said one anonymous protestor. “Modi needs to achieve religious toleration in India before he gains my respect.”
I don’t oppose graciously welcoming an international leader, and I know why a country would get caught up in the excitement of a new leader with an interesting backstory. But caution is as important as enthusiasm—India has major social and political problems, and it needs a real leader. If Modi can deliver on his promises and improve India’s status, then he will be forever cherished as a national hero, but he could also be forgotten as another man full of false promises. But for now, India has hope.  And I got to see some of that at Madison Square Garden.