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Narendra Modi: From Tea Seller to Prime Minister

As a Muslim woman born and raised in India, Modi as prime minister presents a dream and a conundrum.
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Nineteen thousand ebullient Indians in America showed up to see, hear and be part of a joyous crowd with high expectations of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Gardens on Sunday morning. They were met with Mr Modi's pitch perfect speech for an adoring audience.

Modi is a man with a 21st-century vision for India. He wants to implement it immediately -- and the vision is about implementation, doing things right, as well as the right things. The new prime minister not only has a vision and an agenda but he has the will and capacity to execute large scale change in the way India functions. His mantra for India -- "Unity, Action, Progress" -- is focused on the high-level goals and markers in development: girls' education, solar parks, India should lead the world and "red carpet, not red ink" are his maxims.

Though Modi's roots were humble, this is a man of charisma and a passion for change -- "change now." He is a significant departure from our ordinary Indian politician. The prime minister clearly has his finger on the Indian pulse and specifically the pulse of the average man, the little people, whom he considers his "opinion makers."

The crowd applauded repeatedly -- but they exploded when Modi commented, after calling for common sense basics like "a home for everyone by 2022" and toilets: "When people ask me for my big ideas, my grand vision, I remind them 'I got here by selling a cup of tea.'" This kind of celebration of the log cabin to the White House story, ordinary in the US, is quite new to India, whose politics have been far more dynastic and top down. Modi astutely assesses India's three key assets: democracy, the youth bulge -- with 65 percent of India's population being under 25 -- and the technology revolution which he embraces fully as a big plus. He is affirmative when he says: "Dump disappointment -- the country will move forward."

Modi is funny: "We have new stories in India that now, government bureaucrats come to work on time. This is news? Aren't they supposed to come to work? But yes, we had fallen so low that actually, this was news." He pays a tribute to the information technology revolution that many in his audience have led: "Without IT India would still be known as a land of snake charmers. I say we have grown, but we have also down-scaled. We used to charm snakes. Now we make much more money charming a mouse." "Look at our mission to Mars. We are the first nation ever to get to Mars on its first try. And it cost us less per mile to get to the moon than the 20 cents you pay a three wheeler taxi to get around Delhi. We not only know how to do things well, we know how to do them cheaply." He assures the adoring audience that the 21st century belongs to Asia, highlighting India's capacity, competence and the youth factor. He celebrates India's democracy, appreciates the demographic dividend plus the demand and market potential of an evolving India. He is also clear that development takes place with public participation. He believes the government must partner with, not dictate to, the public on development schemes. Modi, like many of his erstwhile predecessors is committed to making "development a public revolution." He believes that India has the potential to be a key leader in the 21st century. India is creating, he says, a work force for the world and we have the capacity to export teachers and all kinds of manpower for the world. He assures the crowd: "The days of red tape are over. Less government and more governance." A new website has been developed: Modi clearly has his finger on the pulse on sanitation. He promises a toilet revolution - so essential particularly for women who need to use the outdoors after dark and therefore are at risk of violence and rape. He reminds us: "I am chota (small) and so I will do big work for chota people." He put out his agenda for the homeless masses of Indians and promised: "I have a dream that in 2022, everyone will have a home." And finally Modi has his finger on the environmental state and health of the country and its people. He wants to clean up the polluted Ganga River -- which impacts 40 percent of the inhabitants living in the environs. He harks back to Mahatma Gandhi who focused on cleanliness and who secured India's independence. He urges the US diaspora to give back to Mother India by joining in cleaning up Mother Ganges. Closing with a benevolent smile, he gave his adoring Indian American audience and many American tourists an incredible gift: An Indian visa upon arrival in India! Imagine that! As a Muslim woman born and raised in India, Modi as prime minister presents a dream and a conundrum. On the one hand, he is the Development leader I could only dream of. I have no doubt that he will successfully support new opportunities for the underprivileged masses. But the key question for me is: Will Muslims have a fair shot at education and access to jobs so that they too can earn an honest living? Will they be able to send their children to school and be equal citizens of India alongside their Hindu brethren? Modi appears to be a kinder, gentler figure as prime minister. Even the NYT commented:

"An angry presence during the campaign, he had been championed by right-wing economists as someone prepared to slash away at the country's gargantuan subsidy programs. Since taking office, though, Mr. Modi has presented a softer face to the country. In his major addresses, delivered without notes and in earthy, colloquial Hindi, he has spoken as a kindly moral instructor, focusing on such humble causes as the need to build toilets."

Will Prime Minister Modi create an environment where Indians of all faiths can live together side by side safely in peace and harmony with their multi-religious neighbors -- without fear of persecution? I certainly hope so.

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