Modi’s charisma, or a new normal?

In a video that went viral, well-known American singer Millben is seen walking towards Modi and almost spontaneously touching his feet. Cynicism apart, the gesture is a moment of pride for India

When Mary Millben touched Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s feet, it was kind of a déjà vu’ moment.

A well-known African American actress and singer, Millben set the tone by singing India’s national anthem during Modi’s three day visit to the United States of America. She performed at the Ronald Reagan Centre in Washington DC at the concluding event at what Prime Minister Modi described as a “very special USA visit”.

In the video that went viral, Millben is seen walking towards Modi and almost spontaneously touching his feet: “A night I will treasure forever,” Millben tweeted after her performance.

Rewind to May this year, when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape touched Modi’s feet during his visit to the island nation.

Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Papua New Guinea, was given a ceremonial welcome which was a break from protocol given that Papua New Guinea does not accord a ceremonial welcome to any leader arriving after sunset. Modi had landed after 10 pm.

Marape was not only present at the airport to welcome Modi but in a rare gesture he bent down and touched Modi’s feet.

It was a moment to be recorded, remembered and cherished. Unprecedented as it was, it showed Modi and through him India in a new light. It was truly India’s wow moment.

First Marape and then Millben: So people are asking: Is feet touching a new normal?.

Equally, critics are wondering whether this is stage managed. They don’t put it past BJP’s spin masters to do what it takes to churn out never before kind of ideas, feet touching on an international forum being one such.

Be as it may, what began with Marape has been carried on through Millben. Stage managed or spontaneous it has shifted focus to Modi in a new persona on the world stage: a persona where the world bends at his feet quite literally.

Marape set the ball rolling and others, including Millben, followed. If reports are anything to go by, two ministers of Marape’s Cabinet too followed suit.

However a cynical view is that this is just the beginning of what will soon become a norm as far as Modi is concerned.

So even if Millben says she “kind of pinched” herself into believing that she shared stage with “Honourable Prime Minister Modi”, whom she admires and respects, critics put a question mark on the sudden spurt of devotion that people abroad are suddenly experiencing for the Indian leader.

Cynicism apart, whether it is Millben, Marape or others that may follow, the gesture is a moment of pride for India.

The focus may be Modi but the beneficiary is unmistakably every Indian worth his salt.

There may not be tangible gains from every overseas visit that Modi embarks on but the perception that he is a serious player on the world stage is good for starters.

From being denied a visa to the very same country which is now bending over backwards to host him, from looking at the White House through locked gates to the red carpet being rolled out for him, Modi has, indeed, come a long way.

Standing next to Modi on the White House South Lawn, Biden said he has long believed that the relationship between the United States and India will be “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.”

There sure were moments which Modi loyalists wished should never have happened: be it the faux pas on women including the mix up between investing and investigating:  instead of saying investing in a girl child, Modi mistakenly  said “investigated” causing an oops moment, as it were.

There were other tense moments including the question on human rights which came up during the joint news conference which Modi and US President Joe Biden addressed.

But to Modi’s credit and everyone’s surprise Modi not only handled it well but went into a kind of a monologue on democracy being in “India’s DNA” and how there was no discrimination in India: “Democracy is our spirit, democracy runs in our veins – we live democracy,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

“There’s absolutely no space for discrimination,” he said.

Instead of being stumped by the unexpected and rather tricky question, Modi appeared to have turned the tables on his detractors.

Having said that, a group of lawmakers did attempt to show the mirror to Modi by circulating a letter about “troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedom and internet access”. But that somehow remained a sideshow to the hullabaloo around Modi’s three day trip.

In fact, the media focus seemed to be more on the specially curated plant based menu at the state dinner hosted by President Biden rather than India’s alleged violations on human rights .

That Modi is a skilled politician is a given as is the fact that his spin masters manage to create a hype which makes even routine visits appear historic. So also with the recent US trip.

But this is not to say that Modi returned empty handed. There were gains by way of defence deals, space cooperation and technology. The Biden administration agreeing to transfer its jet engine technology is indeed unprecedented.

What would be music to ears is the visa relaxation for Indian Americans who would be able to renew their H-1B visa within the US itself unlike in the past.

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialized areas. The technology companies hugely depend on this work force.

But this is less about gains and more about the world looking up to India and believing that it is a force to reckon with and an emerging power that cannot be trifled with.

Naysayers concede, even though grudgingly, that if India is taking strides, it is thanks to Modi’s leadership and the fact that he has led India into a new world order.

This singular factor more than any other makes every Indian proud and helps negate the negatives associated with the divisive yet decisive leader like Narendra Modi.