Indian PM Visit, Election, Energizes Indian-American Youth

The fact that a foreign figure can generate this level of interest in the United States is nothing to take lightly, especially since the general American population has been disengaged from home politics and politicians.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been called many things, among them a reformer, visionary, catalyst for a new Indian era, and even a saint. He has been featured on the covers of numerous American magazines, closely followed by the global media and satirized by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Who can blame the following that Modi has acquired after India's historic elections, in which his Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 of the 543 seats in the election, enough to form a government without brokering a coalition and shutting out the mostly ruling party since India's independence with a mere 44 seats. The magnitude of these results, now a foregone conclusion, has given Modi a widespread and populist mandate to change India's political structure and the manner in which it is governed.

If this past Indian general election was any indication, with its more than 553 million voters or 66 percent voter turnout rate, it was that excitement over Modi's candidacy brought a wave of new and otherwise passive voters to the poll, in addition to established voters. A post-poll survey by Lokniti shows that voters over the age of 56 supported BJP 31 percent to 23 percent for Congress. But more remarkably, newly registered young voters, ages 18 to 22, supported Modi's party by 20 percentage points over the establishment party.

This energy and support by the youth for Narendra Modi or NaMo, affectionately coined by his supporters, expands beyond the Indian subcontinent and reaches far depths here in the United States. I recall close to India's elections, all my friends and acquaintances could talk about was Modi. Americans and foreigners alike would constantly bring up the topic of the then-Gujarat Chief Minister, as if their craving for information of this enigmatic Indian figure was insatiable. It became a common occurrence to see youngsters donning NaMo masks, glasses and all, along with saffron scarfs imprinted with BJP's lotus on its side. In fact, some are still wearing their NaMo masks, as was the case in the recent Indian Day Parade in Edison, New Jersey this past August. Now that the Prime Minister is visiting the United States, even more Americans want to learn who NaMo is.

The fact that a foreign figure can generate this level of interest in the United States is nothing to take lightly, especially since the general American population has been disengaged from home politics and politicians. Perhaps this can be attributed to the Congressional gridlock in Washington or the hyper-partisanship of American politics. Regardless, it seems that Americans are impressed by Modi's ability to coalesce support from everyday Indian citizens and offer them a hope for change to lead more prosperous lives. NaMo's promise of change may not be all too foreign to Americans, as another electrifying figure promised us change we could and did believe in just six years ago.

The world's captivation with then Senator Barack Obama was similarly remarkable. I recall visiting London close to the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election and seeing shirts emblazoned with Obama's face, Barry bobble-head dolls and other related paraphernalia throughout the city. Considering the two leaders' backgrounds and their national political landscapes, it isn't at all surprising the sense of hope and progress that NaMo has been able to instill in India's citizenry, as Obama had with our American electorate in 2008.

President Obama ran on a campaign platform that promised jump-starting a flailing economy, providing for tighter regulations for the financial sector, strengthening America's defense against terrorism while bringing the Bush-era wars to a close, and bridging the partisan political divide throughout the country. He ran and serves during a time in which our nation's racial and ethnic demographics are shifting rapidly; where racial minorities will make up the majority of the U.S. population in just a few decades. Prime Minister Modi has campaigned on reviving India's struggling economy, reducing corruption, and cutting through red tape and inefficient bureaucracy. He has helped India realize its potential to be a manufacturing powerhouse and cultivated a business-centered focus, while vowing to address the nation's widening wealth disparity. Modi and Obama have brought fresh voices and creative ideas to their governments, after many years of having increasingly unpopular and disconnected leaders in office.

What I find most impressive amongst both leaders' backgrounds is their humble upbringing and their ability to connect with the middle and working classes. Modi's father was a tea-seller, while Obama's mother was an educator. Both parents were part of the working class, but were able to instill higher ambitions and dreams for their children. Dreams that came to fruition with hard work, a keen understanding of the issues facing the general public and the ability to address challenging problems. Perhaps what has enabled the American people and Indian-American youth to connect with Modi is a sense of the shared values of democracy, between that of the oldest democracy in the world and that of the largest.

Perhaps this sense of shared progress through democracy is what allows our two nations a strong relationship. I'm always impressed by my parent's stories of immigrating to the United States and how much America has embraced the Indian culture and ideas since then. This is what NaMo experienced when he visited the U.S. and stayed with us in Jersey City in 1993. My parents would often tell me stories of his visit and the lasting impression he made upon not just my family, but all those he encountered throughout his travels here. One story I'll never forget took place during his visit to see the Statue of Liberty, a symbol so many of us take for granted. For NaMo, it was an inspiring image that exemplified our nation's willingness to welcome diversity and care for all classes of its society. He questioned why India didn't have a similar symbol despite its shared values, and vowed to one day build a much larger statue upon returning home to Gujarat. On October 31, 2013, NaMo laid the foundation stone of the Statue of Unity near Vadodara, Gujarat, set to be the world's tallest statue upon completion. We hope his trip this week can further unite our two countries in a partnership that is as strong as the democracies we represent.

We welcome Prime Minister Modi back to the United States, may this trip be as lively, enlightening and exuberant as your first.

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