Modi, in rock star US debut, vows to make India proud

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NEW YORK: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi basked Sunday in a rock star welcome to the United States as he vowed to work tirelessly to make his nation a major power.

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In a massive show of support for a right-wing leader once shunned by Washington, some 18,500 people of Indian origin from across the United States and Canada packed into New York’s Madison Square Garden where they chanted his name and wore T-shirts bearing his picture.

Modi, who Monday will enjoy a red carpet welcome at the White House, renewed campaign pledges to unlock India’s economic potential by streamlining bureaucracy. He hailed Indian Americans for showing an example through their professional successes.

“There was a time when people thought that we were a country of snake-charmers,” Modi said. “Our people used to play with snakes, but now they play with the mouse — and that mouse makes the whole world run.”

Modi promised to start lifetime visas for foreigners of Indian origin and, endorsing a proposal of the previous government without setting a date, to issue visas on arrival for US citizens.

“This kind of love has not been given to any Indian leader ever,” he said of the Indian-American reception. “I will repay that loan by building the India of your dreams.”

Modi, who won India’s widest electoral victory in three decades in April-May elections, fired back at critics who have urged him to launch quicker reforms as he recalled his humble background running a tea stall as a teenager.

“People ask for a big vision? Well, I got here by selling tea,” Modi, speaking for an hour in Hindi without notes, said to thunderous applause.

“I’m a very modest man, and that’s why I plan to do big things for modest people,” he said, listing promises that include building more toilets and cleaning the Ganges holy river.

Pointing to US leaders’ statements that Asia will dominate the 21st century, Modi said: “And some say it will be India’s century. India has the capacity to achieve that potential.”

Sporting a vest in the saffron associated with Hinduism, Modi spoke from a slowly revolving stage in the storied arena that is home to the New York Knicks basketball team and a top destination for big-ticket musicians, with Billy Joel to play later this week.

In a touch inspired by US political conventions, balloons fell as Modi finished his speech while he waved to a crowd that chanted in Hindi, “Long Live Mother India.”

More than 30 US members of Congress took part in the reception that warmed up with Bollywood and traditional dances. But from the start, the crowd chanted for Modi.

At one point co-emcee Hari Sreenivasan, an Indian-born news correspondent on US public television, gently tried to quiet the crowd, saying: “This is starting to sound like a campaign rally. He’s already been elected.”

While foreign leaders often hold community receptions when visiting the United States, an event on the scale of Modi’s is exceedingly rare, with only popes regularly packing stadiums.

Modi’s predecessors held large receptions for Indian Americans, albeit more subtly inside hotel ballrooms.

But US-based supporters have campaigned for years to boost the image of Modi, who was refused a visa by the United States in 2005 on human rights grounds over anti-Muslim riots when he was leader of the western state of Gujarat.

Modi has denied wrongdoing and was never charged. An activist group on the eve of his visit announced a lawsuit against Modi on behalf of three victims alleging “attempted genocide” and offered $10,000 to anyone who served the prime minister a summons.

The United States shifted course on Modi and rushed to court him as it became clear he would rise to power. Obama plans a two-day welcome for Modi starting with a dinner on Monday.

Officials said that Modi, later Sunday in New York, would hold his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two countries have cordial relations and a previous Hindu nationalist government in India moved eagerly to increase cooperation. AFP

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