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PM Modi will rock Madison Square, but will he leave a stamp on US ties?

New York: Narendra Modi is alive and well in the Americas. On his first trip to New York as the prime minister of India, 64-year-old Modi sold out world famous sports and entertainment arena Madison Square Garden in a few hours, according to the organisers.

“Narendra Modi is an absolute rock star,” said one of the event organizers Tejaswi S Patel, who is the president of wealth management firm Evyavan. “Over 40,000 people had applied for tickets but Madison Square Garden can only seat 20,000 people.”

Modi will draw perhaps the largest crowd ever by a foreign leader on US soil when he takes the stage on Sunday in Madison Square Garden before a sellout crowd of 20,000. Legions of Indian Americans, many of them wealthy Gujaratis, who were stung at Modi being denied a US visa in 2005, will celebrate his meteoric rise and get their moment in the sun. The event being emceed by Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri and TV journalist Hari Sreenivasan will have all the hallmarks of a victory rally in an iconic venue that has hosted Elton John and The Beatles over on this side of the pond.

Modi's speech will be beamed live with English subtitles to giant TV screens at Times Square in New York. Modi is reaching out to India's US diaspora, a highly educated population of nearly 3.2 million, in a concerted way no other prime minister has done. The biggest reception so far for a visiting Indian Prime Minister took place in 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee addressed 3,000 NRIs at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York. Manmohan Singh quietly restricted himself to meeting NRIs in ballrooms of five star hotels. In addition to the wildly boisterous event at Madison Square Garden, Ambassador SA Jaishankar will host a large dinner reception for Modi to meet 1,000 Indian Americans at New York’s dowager landmark hotel The Pierre run by the Taj group.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being greeted by dignitaries at the JFK airport in New York. Reuters 
Modi Keeps Tight Control on the India Story

It was a propitious sign that India regained its "stable" rating from Standard and Poor's on Friday, more than two years after an embarrassing downgrade, even as Modi swept into the New York Palace Hotel. He met Mayor Bill de Blasio and later Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold Eliot Varmus who is the director of the National Cancer Institute. Modi will try and renew India’s business mission and inspire US investment by becoming the country’s CEO who is also the Chief Story Teller. In an effort to connect and build a stirring relationship, he will reframe the past, reposition the present, and stimulate confidence.

The complex task of rebuilding “trust and confidence” with bruised global companies was accentuated in May this year as two major foreign investors British oil major BP and telecoms group Vodafone began international arbitration appeals protesting against unfair treatment by the Indian government. Oil and gas explorer Cairn Energy PLC, Vodafone and a host of others are hoping that the new Modi-led government will introduce legal changes, reversing former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s disingenuous tax amendment targeting the groups, as part of a fresh attempt to rebuild ties with foreign investors.

Modi’s reputation for decisiveness, getting things done, rooting out corruption, stimulating investment and slashing through cumbersome regulations has raised expectations among US investors.

“Global investors’ perceptions of the opportunities in India are entirely different than they were before the election of Prime Minister Modi. India is arguably once again the most interesting of the large emerging economies, not only because of the reforms under discussion in New Delhi, but also because of India’s position vis-à-vis other markets such as Brazil, China and Russia,” said Diane Alfano, chairman of Institutional Investor.

Clearly, Modi wants to be the chief narrator of the India story and has reined in his cabinet from speaking about the policy climate and reforms in different voices during his high-profile US visit. As a result, seven ministers — Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Anand Geete, Narendra Singh Tomar, Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman — didn’t show up at this week’s “India Investment Forum” in New York although they were invited. Some of the ministers had confirmed their participation in writing but pulled out this week. Nearly 400 American investors from some of the largest portfolio investment firms in the world, many of which are among the most important investors in India assets were deeply disappointed at the no-show.
“They pulled out at the Prime Minister’s request because he now has decided that he himself will make all travel decisions for the ministers and control how India is projected abroad,” one of the event organisers told Firstpost.

Even though the mass cancellations were tardy, Modi is going to ensure the US business community gets his full attention and he theirs. He will attend a reception at the US-India Business Council in Washington and give a policy address. He also has a breakfast meeting lined up with 17 US corporate chiefs. He will have one-on-one meetings with the bosses of Boeing, Pepsico, General Electric, Google and Goldman Sachs. Trade between the two countries is close to $100 billion and both sides will set ambitious new targets during the visit by working through impediments.

Workmanlike Relationship with Obama
Two years ago, US lawmakers, especially Republicans primed for the return of the BJP to power in New Delhi, with Modi at the helm as prime minister, following what US analysts at the Congressional Research Service described as a "precipitous" decline in the Congress party's fortunes. However, President Obama was late to warm-up to Modi. His ambassador to India only met Modi in February, when opinion polls already put the BJP on course for a big election win.

Tensions remain between Washington and New Delhi at the World Trade Organization and a row over alleged American spying on the BJP. Last week, Obama hurriedly named well-liked and suave Richard Verma as the next ambassador to India, the first Indian-American to step into that role.

“I don’t think there will be a great deal of warmth. Obama is not known for his warm and fuzzy behavior and Modi himself is very careful and circumspect. The best one can hope for is a workman like relationship between the two,” said South Asia expert Sumit Ganguly, who holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University.

“The real way to leave a stamp on the India-US relationship will be to coordinate policy. A performance in Madison Square Garden may make the Indian American community feel good but it has no substantive value. What will matter is the prime minister’s ability to carefully negotiate a set of agreements or to set in motion certain discussions that can then be followed up on. That will be the proof of the pudding,” said Ganguly.

During Modi's five-day visit to the US, he will have a private dinner with President Obama at the White House on Monday before a more formal bilateral meeting. He will also lunch with US vice president Joe Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department and meet Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill.
Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have made back-to-back visits to Delhi this year and attempted to build a momentum that went missing in the past few years. This visit is aimed at growing cooperation in the education, trade and defense sectors.

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