My parents voted for Barack Obama, presumably because like so many immigrants in America, they see the Democrats as more inclusive than the Christian-right-dominated, overwhelmingly white Republican Party.
Yet, as nostalgic and devout Hindus who left for the US forty years ago, my parents are also huge supporters of India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu-nationalist whose epic efficiency was suddenly and notably absent when it came to mobs butchering more than a thousand Muslims in his home state of Gujarat in 2002.
He was banned from visiting the US for a decade due to the horrific religious violence unleashed under his watch.
I was a cub BBC reporter at the time and door-stepped Mr. Modi in Ahmedabad as he gathered with other senior BJP leaders to discuss matters.
I’d just interviewed a Muslim man who’d been set on fire by a mob. He lay in a simple concrete hut covered in second degree burns in soaring temperatures, clearly suffering, but too afraid to get to a hospital.
Pregnant women had been disembowelled that fortnight. A senior Muslim Congress leader had been torn to pieces in public, his multiple calls to the police and authorities mysteriously ignored.
I showed Mr. Modi the photo of the burnt man on my boxy digital camera – his skin had become a tight pink mask devoid of hair – and asked the then chief minister what he would say to him.
Mr. Modi showed no emotion or concern. He simply stated that medical care was being provided, a fact not evident in the make-shift shelters for those who’d been violently hounded from their homes.
The site of the same Mr. Modi this week in Madison Square Garden was quite a contrast from those ugly post-riot days. He was quite the charmer, championing everyone and everything from toilets, to trade to Hugh Jackman (?!?)
For me, the sight of adulating Indian-American audiences was far more surprising and disappointing than seeing Mr. Modi basking in his newfound global limelight.
It’s not that I don’t want him to succeed in remaking India. Anyone who can transform this country of 1.2 billion people into a cleaner, more educated, less corrupt and more equitable place obviously deserves support.
But the unquestioning – and in some cases – naked religious and ethnic loyalty shown by Indians in the US is, at best, rank hypocrisy.
How can anyone support the politics of inclusion in the US, while excusing and even embracing a party and a leader whose power has been built on exclusion and violence in India? How many Modi-maniacs also supported the BJP's efforts to send bricks with the name of the Hindu-god Ram on them to Ayodhya to build a temple on the ruins of a demolished mosque?
And before you excuse the BJP by pointing to the sins of the opposition Congress party, itself adept at corruption, violence and division, let me just say that I’d be writing a not dissimilar post if the same display of pseudo-patriotism had been trotted out for a Congress leader.
My point is that Indian Americans ought to look beyond the fig-leaf of their own economic and academic achievements, beyond language, religious and caste loyalties to ask how much Mr. Modi mirrors their own prejudices and moral short-comings?
Frankly, I think the adoration of Mr. Modi by NRIs comes from the fact that he so perfectly mirrors their duplicity. In public, he preaches accountability and inclusiveness while privately condoning the re-writing of textbooks to reflect a Hindu hegemony on history. He champions social media as a sign of his own engagement, but is mysteriously silent on current instances of communal violence and the imprisonment of those who criticize him.
He is, in short, so familiar to NRIs, who have thrived in America precisely because of equal rights and a certain blindness to ethnicity and religion... a situation which ironically gives them the right to practice an absentee fascism when it comes to their home country.
My fellow Indian Americans, if you really do want Mr. Modi (in spite of his dubious past) to succeed in transforming India to something more than a global snake charmer, the land of color and stink, then you’ll have to look into the darkest recesses of your own caste loyalties and religious divisions.
Stop sending your kids to garba and bhangra nights and instead learn to discuss with them Ambedkar, Arya Samaj and the guy who killed Mahatma Gandhi. Take a class in Urdu poetry... and read about Partition. Maybe take in a UNDP report or two on toilets and caste.
That’s India too.
Like every other tribe or nation on earth which aspires to greatness, you’ll have to hold not only your self-appointed economic and cultural messiah, Mr. Modi, to account. You’ll have to hold your own beliefs to account and decide if you really do stand for transformation.
I know it was really cool to see a Desi in Madison Square Garden, the UN and the White House, but more than waving the tricolor, cheering floodlit Hollywood stars, or even applauding joint op-eds in the Washington Post, the thing that might really begin to transform India is a willingness to embrace reality.