The Howdy Modi event in Houston was a successful political and diplomatic exercise. Should national pride be attached to it?
Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures — the event in Houston, Texas, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to 50,000-plus Indian Americans on September 22 — was a runaway hit. To use a baseball reference, Modi hit the ball out of the park! Billed as the largest audience addressed by a foreign political leader on American soil, a highlight of the event was that United States President Donald Trump shared stage with Modi.
The event has come in for criticism from the Opposition, who have accused Modi of ‘campaigning’ for Trump who will be seeking re-election in 2020. The political messaging the event has sent out (for both Trump and Modi), and the diplomatic edge it has given New Delhi are noteworthy, and by now much-discussed.
While the tangible results of the event are keenly awaited in the days to come, there are two aspects the Houston event has brought to the front: One, the growing importance of overseas Indians, and, two, the restless, aspirational Indian.
The soft power overseas Indians carry cannot be overlooked and as a recent United Nations report suggested, at 17.5 million, India has the largest diaspora in the world. What the Houston event has showed is that Indians overseas (in this case, in Texas) have achieved a critical mass to be seen as a politically-relevant group. Trump was there to court the thousands of Indian Americans in Houston, who have traditionally leaned towards the Democrats. The US President’s repeated endorsement of Indian Americans as the ideal citizens and immigrants America wants, can play a positive role towards in the overall outlook towards Indians in that country.
Senior anthropologist MA Kalam in Migration Dynamics, an essay written for the Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research, discusses about a Critical Demographic Scale (CDS), where once a migrant community reaches a certain point in numbers it starts to assert its identity in the host country. The Indian communities in the US passed their CDS long ago and, if Howdy Modi is to go by, they have reached a critical mass where they are a visible group which can exert political in certain pockets in the US. Similar examples are the South Asian communities in Britain, the Indian communities in the Caribbean, etc.
The second aspect is the hyperbole that was the hallmark of the Howdy Modi and similar events. As said in the opening, the event was a roaring success in achieving many things — but is it correct to attach national pride to what is essentially a political or diplomatic exercise? If yes, why is it that such a refraction happens?
To give a more ubiquitous example — take the sentiments associated with the Indian cricket team’s performance. Why is the loss in a sporting event seen as a ‘setback’ for national pride? More recently this was seen when ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 faced a setback. Why does India’s restless and aspirational class feel an overpowering need to infuse national pride into sporting or scientific or even political events? Why is our self-confidence so brittle?
To be sure, events such as Howdy Modi are essentially a spectacle, meant to show the people back home that ‘See how well we're doing on the world stage’. It is, by its very nature, a media event, an occasion for hype and bombast.
Pride and nationalism are multi-dimensional concepts which also act as a soothing balm over setbacks (such as an economic slowdown) and injustices (like poor law and order or healthcare facilities). Consider the silliness of incessantly tom-tomming that we have the world's highest rate of GDP growth when vast swathes of the country live from hand to mouth. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we were a colony for centuries and our aspirational classes, already successful globally, now demand respect? They are chafing at the bit, raring to go and are frustrated at the poverty and the slow pace of change in their home country, which prevents India from taking its rightful place among the world's powers. Then, of course, there is the example of China, with whom we love to compare ourselves and whose progress is a source of great envy.
Surely we have enough reasons to be proud, without being brash about it? That we are a successful democracy is no mean achievement. Our diversity and culture is reason enough for celebration. Despite grave handicaps, we have achieved much in the years since Independence. In some respects, as in our non-violent struggle for Independence, we have been an example to the world.
These achievements, however, are not enough, from the point of view of eager young people hungry for status and power. While that feeling has its ugly side, there is also something positive about it — it is a signal that people are no longer happy with the status quo, that they want to step up the pace of change.
However, overt displays of pride are also sometimes necessary for a nation, and it isn’t only the upwardly mobile diaspora that has this feeling. Dominique Lapierre’s The City of Joy has a poignant ending: After suffering great loses in a cyclone, the protagonist returns to his slum, to utter poverty, and wakes up one morning hearing people rejoicing and bursting crackers. On enquiring he’s told that all their problems are over. “We've won! Now we're as strong as….the Russians, the Chinese, the British . . . We shall be able to irrigate our fields, to harvest our rice several times a year, and to put lighting in our villages and slums. We shall all be able to eat to our heart's content. There will be no more poor people. Our great Durga Indira Gandhi has just made an announcement on the radio: this morning we exploded our first atomic bomb!”For more Opinion pieces, click here.The Great Diwali Discount!
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