NEW DELHI — As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington this week, newspaper front pages here in India were awash with banner headlines about a new “dawn” in the country’s relations with the United States.
It was a “rock-star reception,” tweeted Amit Malviya, head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology office.
The celebrity welcome for Modi this week in Washington gave the prime minister yet another chance to use the world stage as a venue to bolster his image at home. Throughout Modi’s tenure, local media in India have featured his hugs and greetings with world leaders. This time, the fanfare over his reception abroad comes just a year before India’s national elections.
“No other leader is welcomed in the U.S. the way Modi was. It makes our chests swell with pride,” said Rohit Singla, a 31-year-old cloth merchant from Ludhiana in Punjab state, who rattled off the visit’s numerous highlights from Elon Musk’s praise for Modi to the newly signed bilateral arms deals.
“This is the magic of Modi … He is undoubtedly a global leader now,” Singla said, adding that he believes the visit will lead to more jobs in India. “He went there and got business done.”
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, 37-year-old Pulkit Goenka, a textile businessman, said India could now become a “superpower” with American technological help and that Modi has helped turn the Indian rupee into a “global currency.”
“He is the most recognizable and popular face in the world,” Goenka said. “We all know how the U.S. saw India a decade back. Now, because of Modi, it’s different.”
Political experts say the portraits of Modi in Washington and the surrounding events will undoubtedly play a large role in the upcoming election. Fifteen parties that will challenge the BJP in the upcoming elections held a meeting Friday in an effort to display a united front.
But it was no match for the airtime or front page space given to the Modi visit.
“Why is a country like America, which has always considered itself the boss, letting India be the boss?” one anchor asked, before presenting reports of inflation and homelessness in the United States.
“A large section of the cable news in India is like Fox News on Red Bull when it comes to drumming up the cult of Modi,” said Manisha Pande, managing editor of Newslaundry, a media watchdog.
“Remember, this messaging is a key component of the BJP’s election strategy — so, in effect, the visit is not just about a historic juncture for U.S.-India ties, which it very well is, but crucially it’s also about the Biden administration giving Modi a big leg-up for the upcoming 2024 elections,” Pande said.
It was Modi’s successful election campaign in 2019 that first showed his ability to use the world stage to win votes, said Rahul Verma, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research.
“Trust in Modi wasn’t coming from concrete things like economic well-being, or things you can measure,” Verma said, citing a Firstpost-IPSOS survey in January 2019. “Trust has come from more abstract notions like Modi improving India’s image in the world or national security — things you can’t experience in your daily life.”
Modi has also sought to make use of the enormous Indian diaspora outside the country to shape his public image, Verma added. India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, also tried to tap into the diaspora during a recent U.S. tour, warning about India’s democratic backsliding, but with much less fanfare.
“The diaspora is important in Indian politics, and Modi was perhaps ahead of the curve,” said Verma. The 32 million people of Indian origin outside of the country play a key role in shaping internal narratives through information channels such as WhatsApp, he said.
But there has also been criticism of the prime minister’s trip to Washington. Chetan Thirthahalli, a 43-year-old writer from Bangalore, said the trip will do nothing to address the country’s severe labor crisis and other pressing issues.
“Modi is on a jolly trip,” Thirthahalli said, at a time when there is ethnic violence in northeastern India, lynchings of religious minorities, and attacks against lower caste Hindus. “Modi should be in India to fix these things first rather than being away all the time. Everybody knows how bad things are in India while he is touring the world. Indians don’t need such extravagant shows.”
Amrit Boro, 43, a betelnut trader from Assam, echoed the criticism. “How is Modi’s visit going to help a commoner when prices of basics have skyrocketed under his rule?” Boro said. “He runs away whenever there is a crisis in the country. I see that in his trip now.”
Some Indian front pages and television channels also gave attention to former president Barack Obama’s comments in a CNN interview on Thursday. Obama said that he would tell Modi, if given the opportunity, that “if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India, at some point, starts pulling apart.”
That remark led to a viral exchange in India after a journalist sarcastically tweeted to the chief minister of Assam asking if his state was planning to arrest Obama, in reference to previous arrests by the Assam police.
In a response that took aim at India’s Muslim population, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, tweeted: “There are many Hussain Obama in India itself. We should prioritize taking care of them before considering going to Washington.”
Like many other BJP leaders and supporters across the country, Sarma repeatedly shared videos of Modi chants in the Congress and in front of the White House.
One anchor on one of India’s most popular English news channels chimed in: “When the opposition hears ‘Modi, Modi’ chants, the opposition hears only ‘Modi, Modi.’ We hear ‘India, India.’”