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Modi Galvanizes Indian Diaspora On U.S. Visit


The new prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is on his first visit to United States since winning the election last spring. Tonight he is dining with President Obama at the White House. It's a small, private dinner - a stark contrast to last night when Modi headlined at Madison Square Garden.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Modi, Modi, Modi.

MARTIN: Modi entered the arena to a rock star's welcome.


MARTIN: Those are the cheers of thousands of Indians and Indian Americans who packed into the Garden to see the new leader of the world's largest democracy and a man whose promise to realize India's potential as an economic powerhouse.

For more on how Narendra Modi plans to recast his own political party and reframe U.S.-Indian relations, we're joined by Mitra Kalita. She's a journalist with the online magazine Quartz and Quartz India. Thanks so much for being with us.

MITRA KALITA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mitra, I understand you were at the Garden last night. You were there taking in that scene. Indian Americans seem to be uncharacteristically enthusiastic about this new Prime Minister - why?

KALITA: So Narendra Modi came to office at a really interesting time in India's economy. For the last 15 years or so the story very much has been one of rapid growth, but over the last few years a lot of that growth slowed. And so Modi comes in under this era of great promise - of returning India to the growth of that was, and that was very much the chords that he struck yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

MARTIN: Today, Prime Minister Modi has been meeting with a long list - a who's-who of American corporate executives - Google, Pepsi, a host of other big names. What might he be looking for from those meetings?

KALITA: So he's looking for investment. And part of the Modi promise is that he's going to make it easier for companies to enter India - to do business in India. What I think he's also pushing for is some sense of an alliance with India that's truly legitimate. And, perhaps, in this trifecta of India, China and the U.S., is it more powerful to defeat the so-called threat of China under an alliance between the United States and India?

The problem with India is that it's repeatedly hobbled by red tape, getting things done, really poor infrastructure. And a part of Modi's calculation here has to be, I will fix that which I can in India, but you have to believe me and put some money in that dream as well.

MARTIN: How much of this trip, though, is about burnishing his image and the image of his party, the BJP, back home in India? This is, after all, the Hindu Nationalist Party. It's a party that has a very polarizing past.

KALITA: I think it's fairly significant. I mean, Indians leaving India and coming back to India with ideas and vision is not a new thing, and I think Modi realizes this. Also, just in this era of increased communication via WhatsApp and Facebook and so many other mechanisms from the blue era grams (ph) that my family traded back and forth in the 1970s, there is this awareness and this feeling of belonging that we perhaps didn't have before. And Modi needs to appeal to that because after all NRIs, as we're known - nonresident Indians - are among a big source of investment for him.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, Prime Minister Modi is meeting with President Obama this evening. Does he have any specific asks? What does he want or need from his conversation with President Obama on this trip?

KALITA: I think Modi would like some assurance that indeed - on the China issue, that the U.S. sides with India. In exchange, I think Obama might be asking Modi for involvement in the affairs of the world. India's been quite reticent to step into issues of Iraq or Syria, for example.

And I think a lot of sitting down with Obama tonight is going to be psychologically good for relations between the two countries and, again, an assurance that in this relationship among China, India and the U.S., that it might be the U.S. siding with India that makes them a lot stronger than the alternative.

MARTIN: Mitra Kalita writes for the online journal Quartz. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KALITA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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