I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience I had this past Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
About a month ago, I received a call from a friend whom I highly respect, asking if I’d be willing to volunteer for the community reception for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to America. I agreed almost immediately because who was asking, even though I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the politics of India’s new Prime Minister. But as a lifelong community organizer, and someone who’s had the experience of working on many professional political conventions, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what I was walking into.
I was completely wrong.
In many ways, the event this past Sunday was even more improbable and more impressive than the press coverage made it out to be. What the media saw was the packed house of 20,000 people. But it was the buzz and hum of the machinery behind the scenes that was truly impressive.
The whispered phrase from “Field of Dreams” kept repeating in my head: “If you build it, they will come.” In this case, quite literally. The leaders behind the Indian American Community Foundation “built” an event, pulled together over 400 community organization partners, and filled “The World’s Most Famous Arena” almost overnight. And they filled it with everyone from local residents from Edison, New Jersey and Jackson Heights, Queens, to tech tycoons from Silicon Valley, political activists from Houston, Texas, and leaders of the academic and business worlds. Over 40 elected officials followed, as did 400+ members of the media, including almost every major US and Indian network.
They built it and we ALL came. And then more came and filled Times Square too. And the ones who couldn’t come? They organized dozens of watch parties all over the world.
In less than one month, a convention that could rival anything put on by a major US political party or candidate was pulled together on a relatively modest budget, and powered entirely by volunteers like me. They were volunteers from different faiths, political spectrums and various communities – it was a diverse group of young and old, political and non-political, people that just wanted to serve and others who wanted more.
From the language on the website, the design of the t-shirts, to the distribution of the tickets and the outreach to elected officials and media, every task, large and small, was done by volunteers. There were no paid staff. Granted some of us are professionals by day—we had volunteers who are PR agents, former Congressional and campaign staff, professors, business executives, and more, handling tasks like drafting press releases, arranging credentials for registrants, and managing seating assignments. Have you ever planned a wedding or a large party with a committee? Imagine if you were doing it for 20,000 guests, and it was being covered by 400 reporters. And, the tickets were free. It sounds crazy right? I won’t lie, we were all a little bit nuts by the end of it.
Some will joke that it was obvious that this wasn’t professionally run; that it was in many ways “controlled chaos.” Sure, we hit our share of snafus: press releases that needed clarification, tickets that went missing, Members of Congress stuck outside in the wrong lines—you name it, it happened. But as someone who has worked on very expensive campaigns, where tens of millions of dollars were spent to move a few hundred swing voters, I can tell you that what we pulled off on Sunday is every candidate and political activist’s dream. We built it, and THEY CAME. Trust me, that does not often happen.
Obviously the big draw was the “rock star” Prime Minister Modi. His charisma for some, notoriety for others, drew this crowd in. It may be a surprise to you that many of the core volunteers who were key in Sunday’s success, like myself, are not necessarily supportive of the BJP, and still need to be convinced that his political party is the right choice for India and we still have many unanswered questions.
So why were we there? Why did we spend countless late nights and early mornings, before and after our day jobs, working on this event?
The common thread among all of us is our unwavering commitment to improving the relationship between India and the United States. Every one of us is a true believer in that mission. We love the United States, and we know that India has yet to reach its full potential. We have dreams of a bi-lateral relationship that improves the lives of ALL Indians and Americans. And when the elected leader of the world’s largest democracy came to the world’s oldest democracy, we answered the call.
And I will say I was impressed with the new Prime Minister’s emphasis on infrastructure, sanitation, equal rights for women, and his invitation to be more engaged in his work. We don’t have to agree on everything for me to think he’s on the right track. I plan on taking up his invitation to go back to India again soon and bring my American friends.
In my mind, beyond the Prime Minister’s speech, the success of Sunday’s event is critical for two reasons:
1) It demonstrated the political power and potential of the Indian American community. Leaders are already paying attention. As former US Ambassador to India Tim Roemer tweeted: “PM Modi’s visit to US shows the potent political power and growth of 3.2 million Indian American diaspora: 20,000 people packed MSG in NYC”.
2) It sent a clear message to the Obama Administration that there is a truly American constituency committed to partnering in their work with India.
While standing on the press bridge at Madison Square Garden, a full 7 hours after I’d arrived, I had the surreal experience of hearing a crowd of 20,000 roar when Prime Minister Modi walked on stage. My political reservations about him aside, I could not help but feel chills and get goosebumps. When is the last time you’ve seen that many Indian Americans mobilize and gather, other than for a Bollywood show or a religious festival? What else could 20,000 Indian Americans accomplish when organized?
I know as an Indian American community we still have significant challenges to overcome. And I realize that Prime Minister Modi will continue to generate critical debate among us as he works to advance his ambitious agenda. I think it’s a good thing people on all sides are passionate about their viewpoints. That is what real democracy is about.
I remain hopeful that this is a sign of the continued growth and maturation of an Indian American community that will continue to be engaged and heard, and can be a force in US politics. I hope we can impact international relations to not only improve the country of our ancestry, but also allow our home country, the United States, to continue to benefit from the gifts and talents of India and her people.
And, I feel a little more prepared for my next political convention in 2016.