His walkabouts, be it on New York streets or at the memorial for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, have confirmed a facet of Modi that was hitherto only suspected. Modi is acutely conscious of both the power and the presence of the camera.
In the four days that the Prime Minister has so far spent in New York, he has become the cynosure of photographers. Cameramen tailing Modi were surprised initially that the US Secret Service gave them a kind of latitude that is seldom given while covering VVIP visitors from abroad who are grave security risks.
Everywhere Modi went, his protectors allowed a large gap for photographers to circle around him and freely click pictures. Witness the photos published in this newspaper on Sunday of his strolls.
Cameramen have since gleefully discovered that instructions had come from Modi through his security that photographers must be given a free hand to put the Prime Minister in photogenic locations and positions with an eye on his image back home.
Partly, this has been possible because Modi has been giving short shrift to the heavy-handed ways of his own Special Protection Group, whose unimaginative decisions were rarely challenged before because of the SPG’s special status as the outcome of an act of Parliament in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
For the first time that most people here can recall, the SPG presence around a Prime Minister is low-key and unobtrusive. Some weeks ago, Modi had asked SPG personnel not to remain within earshot of him because he thought they could eavesdrop on him and be the source of embarrassing leaks.
When Manmohan Singh visited New York for the first time as Prime Minister in 2004, he expressed a wish to visit a Barnes and Noble bookstore near his hotel that is spread over several floors in the company of his long-time friend, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati.
The then SPG chief firmly told Singh that he was Prime Minister and that he just could not do such things as shopping for books any more. The incumbent SPG chief would not dare tell that to Modi. He has already shown he is boss.
On this visit abroad, Modi has actually attempted to disabuse the notion that he is hostile to the media. When S. Jaishankar, the ambassador to the US, proposed to the Prime Minister that he should find time to meet correspondents of the Indian media posted in Washington and New York, he agreed to the ambassador’s suggestion immediately and without any hesitation.
These correspondents assumed that they were the first Indian media personnel that the Prime Minister had interacted with, but Modi told them that was not the case. “I have friends in the media and I meet them,” he revealed.
Obviously, this is not public knowledge because when Modi meets his “friends in the media”, the same ground rules apply to such meetings that were imposed on the half-score of men and women who interpret the US to Indian readers: nothing is to be written about what transpired at such meetings --- no notes, no recordings.
In fact, the India-based correspondents in the US had to deposit their mobile phones, recorders, notebooks, pens and such in the “visit control room” before being received by the Prime Minister.
If Modi has brought any copies of the Bhagavad Gita to be gifted to his American hosts, the high probability is that he will have to take them back home with him. The most high-profile American who has been adopted by ethnic Indians here as one of them has beaten the Prime Minister at his own gesture of gifting the Gita “to eminent people I meet all over the world”, as he admitted in Tokyo earlier this month.
Modi merely gives away regular copies of the Gita. But Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to be elected to the US Congress, yesterday gifted Modi her personal copy of the Gita, which has sentimental, emotional and very special spiritual value to this popular Democratic legislator from Hawaii.
“Today I was very honoured to have the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Modi, where I presented him with a gift of my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita,” she said after meeting Modi twice, once at the Madison Square Garden before the Prime Minister’s speech on Sunday and later for 15 minutes in his Manhattan hotel.
“Nothing could have been more special and valuable to me than this Gita, which I have had with me since a child.”
For Gabbard, it was not a possession that was easy to give up. She was sworn in as a member of the US Congress on that holy book. When she was a soldier in the Iraq war for two years from 2004, she often found solace from this copy of the Gita.
- The Telegraph, Calcutta