Narendra Modi Outlines Goals for India on Eve of a Visit With Obama


Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, sold himself on Sunday as a onetime tea vendor who wanted to lift India to glory by cleaning up the country, clearing the way for business and preparing its young citizens to be the work force of an aging world. His speech at Madison Square Garden telegraphed a wish list on the eve of his first meeting with President Obama, while also deftly rallying an influential diaspora to his side.

Mr. Modi addressed a wildly enthusiastic audience that was largely made up of Indian-Americans, and played skillfully to their sentiments. He reminded the crowd of the taunts they had heard for years that India was a land of snake charmers, and he offered lavish praise for their success in the United States.

“I tell them, ‘My friends, I came here selling tea,’ ” he said, and paused, as the audience leapt to its feet and clapped. “I’m a small man. My mind is busy doing small things.”

Mr. Modi is visiting at a time when India and the United States are each seeking big things from the other. Theirs was supposed to be what Mr. Obama once called the defining “partnership” of the 21st century. The relationship has withered since then, though, and both Washington and Delhi are trying urgently now to repair it, showering each other with the diplomatic equivalent of Champagne and roses during Mr. Modi’s five-day visit to America.

He has met with two mayors and three governors, and more than two dozen members of Congress attended his event at the Garden. He is scheduled to meet on Monday with 11 chief executives from companies like Boeing, Google and Goldman Sachs, and then to speak at the Council on Foreign Relations.

An intimate dinner is planned with Mr. Obama on Monday (though Mr. Modi’s aides have let it be known that he is fasting for a Hindu festival called Navratri), as well as lunch on Tuesday at the State Department and tea with Speaker John A. Boehner. His itinerary also includes a meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Modi is here to sell a new New India, with himself as the man who can be trusted to deliver on its promise. But it remains to be seen whether he is willing or able to bridge India’s wide differences with the United States on tax policy, climate change, outsourcing, intellectual property rights and other issues. Nor has India proved to be a trusted partner (India avoids the word “ally”) on American foreign policy priorities, including the conflict in Syria.

R. Nicholas Burns, who was a top State Department official in the administration of George W. Bush, put the question this way: “Can we reset, reboot, revive — use your word — this relationship? We have to.”

An administration official cast Mr. Modi’s visit as a chance to “reinvigorate” relations. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said the new government in Delhi offered a fresh chance, not least because Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won enough seats in Parliament to govern alone, without coalition partners. “We think this will be a pivotal moment and an opportunity for us to define how we can work together,” the official said.

Mr. Modi seems eager to establish something of a brain trust among influential Indian-Americans. He met Saturday evening with a dozen of them, including venture capitalists, technology executives, a college president and a former aide to Mrs. Clinton.

“You guys have achieved a lot here,” the prime minister told the group, according to one of the attendees. “I want to duplicate your success. What do we do to duplicate that success?”

On Sunday evening, he spoke to 700 Indian-Americans at a dinner at the Pierre Hotel. He said he did not need their dollars; he wanted every Indian-American to send five non-Indian friends to visit the country. Tourism, he said, can generate income for cabbies, auto-rickshaw drivers — “even tea sellers.”

Mr. Modi is keen to attract business deals that will create jobs in India, one of his main campaign promises in a nation where every month a million people turn 18 and join the labor force. For their part, American officials and executives want Mr. Modi to remove many of the obstacles that foreign companies face in doing business in India.

“The biggest thing the prime minister can do is to re-establish trust,” said Ajay Banga, chief executive of MasterCard, who has championed the cause of American business in India.

Stephen Ezell of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said that Mr. Modi seemed to be the most business-friendly prime minister in India’s recent history, but that he had yet to take action on matters like trade policy and taxes. “If he is truly going to deliver on that vision, then he is going to have to make some very difficult decisions,” Mr. Ezell said.

Mr. Modi received resounding applause on Sunday for a promise to clear away red tape facing new businesses.

The stated purpose of Mr. Modi’s trip was to address the United Nations General Assembly, but every stop he has made in New York has been tailored to send messages to specific audiences. One of his first was at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, signaling India’s commitment to combating extremist groups. He has not said whether India supports the American-led airstrikes against insurgents in Iraq and Syria, but that issue is certain to come up in his meetings in Washington, administration officials have said.

India has not taken a side in the war in Syria, and it continues to do business with Iran. But in steps that American officials have noted, Mr. Modi has improved ties with Japan, cautioned China against expansionism and signaled that he can be trusted as a friend to the United States in fighting terrorism. He met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

Both publicly and privately, Mr. Modi has listed his own priorities for India: building toilets, expanding Internet broadband access in the countryside, training young people for work and cleaning up the Ganges, a holy river in Hindu scripture.

“He is projecting an image of India that we haven’t seen in a while — that is, an India as a global player,” said Vishakha Desai, a former president of the Asia Society, who attended the Madison Square Garden speech on Sunday.

Mr. Modi’s emphasis on prosperity and cleanliness appealed to Rohit Sehgal of Secaucus, N.J. He said he hoped the changes Mr. Modi was promising would get his daughter’s generation to stop complaining about the roads and the garbage in India. “I want my daughter to want to go back to her country,” he said.

Not everyone was impressed. Outside the arena, a small group of protesters held banners denouncing Mr. Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when sectarian rioting racked the state. He could not get a visa to visit the United States for nearly 10 years because of accusations that he had done too little to stop the violence.

Rekha Malhotra, 43, a popular disc jockey who was among the protesters, said she had turned down passes that she had been offered to see Mr. Modi speak. “I said thanks but no thanks — I’ll be outside,” she explained.

Sherry Hundal, 46, said she had come from Denville, N.J., to raise her voice against the prime minister. “I’m glad to be on the right side of history,” she said.

Source: NYTimes