Narendra Modi’s first official visit to the United States, which ended on Sept. 30 was quite a spectacle. There was a campaign-style appearance before 18,000 adoring fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jumbotrons in Times Square broadcast an extravaganza that featured Bollywood dancing, convention-style balloon-drops, and a receiving line of dozens of U.S. congressmen. Modi was working hard, it seemed, to introduce himself favorably to Americans and the Indian expatriates who live among them.
But he wasn’t just speaking to the people on this continent. In fact, the symbolism and rhetoric of this trip were carefully calibrated toward his Hindu nationalist base at home (and here, too). This was old-fashioned dog-whistle politics, and it was a master class. The message: I may nod to tolerance and openness, but I’m really still with you.
For starters, take the jacket Modi wore on stage in New York. It was in a color that his personal tailor, Bipin Chauhan, has called a “silent” variation of saffron. The color is a favorite of Modi’s. Many of his iconic calf-length shirts, now rebranded as #ModiKurtas (yes, they have a hash tag), and other accessories sport some shade of saffron. In India, saffron has deep connotations for Hindus, symbolizing sacred fire, sacrifice, asceticism and a quest for light and salvation. But the color has also been co-opted by Hindu fundamentalists. The armed Hindu mobs that roamed Gujarat in the 2002 riots that led to the death of over 1,000 people, three-quarters of them Muslim, wore saffron. Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time. While evidence exists of state complicity in the riots, he personally has not been found guilty. Still, given the loaded iconography surrounding the color, Modi’s style choices seem awfully brazen.
In his speech on Sunday, the prime minister evoked yet another symbol of India — the river Ganges. In asking for help from affluent Indian Americans in the audience to clean up the polluted river, he referred to the river as Maa Ganga or Mother Ganga, an honorific routinely used by Hindus who revere the river as a Goddess and believe its water is holy. He exhorted the audience to watch a film that is a paean to Hindu rituals associated with the river. His reclamation project has been named NamamiGange; Namami is a term borrowed from Sanskrit prayers and means “obeisance.” Namami Gange translates as, “We bow to you, Ganga” — a sentiment that the hundreds of millions of Indians who depend on the arterial river may not share. In contrast, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s cleanup mission was simply called the Ganga Action Plan.
Modi also made sure his audience at Madison Square Garden knew that he was fasting for Navrathri, a Hindu religious festival. At two meals organized in his honor by the White House, Modi sipped warm water — a gesture of ascetic renunciation that was widely publicized.
Even the joint op-ed penned by President Obama and Modi in The Washington Post had problems. It doffed its hat to Swami Vivekananda, whose advocacy of a more socially engaged, more “masculine” form of Hinduism that stands chest to chest with other religions, has been appropriated by Hindu fundamentalist groups like the reactionary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political offshoot, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi has in the past positioned himself as a leader in the mold of Vivekananda — even going so far to hang posters of the teacher as a backdrop for his public appearances.
The fact that the leader of a self-professed secular democracy associates himself overtly and unabashedly with the symbols of India’s majority religion should suggest that America needs to tread carefully or risk being seen as endorsing a Hindu-centric re-branding of India, a country with 176 million Muslims, some 20 million Sikhs, and many other minorities. Yes, Modi mentioned Sikhs once in his speech, and he drew attention to the Muslims who were grouped prominently near the stage, but the predominance of exclusively Hindu symbols and language in the rest of his rhetoric made these references feel like token gestures.
By themselves, wearing saffron or gifting Bhagavad Gitas to Obama could be dismissed as aesthetic or lyrical flourishes from a master politician. But taken as a whole, it is hard not to see these actions as an attempt to assert India’s Hindu-ness on the world stage — at the expense of its minority faiths.