The big NRI bash at Varanasi had a slight feel of the election rally rather than a gigantic getting together of the great and good among the diaspora. The speeches of Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) were coded with curious election messaging.
Before any of the dignitaries took to the podium, there was a musical performance by a group of young men and women. They sang of Kashi, the ancient name for Varanasi, and for the Hindu god, Shiva, and rhymed it with Bharatvanshi (loosely translated as people of Indian origin).
Then the song took an inclusive turn. “Koi dharma ho, koi jaat ho, lekin Bharatvanshi hain” (No matter your religion or your caste, you are of Indian origin), they sang.
Shortly after, Swaraj opened the convention by introducing those present on the stage. The longest portion of her speech was dedicated to ‘pravasi bharatiyonkedilmeinbassehumaare Modiji (the man who lives in non-resident Indians’ hearts, our Modiji). She also offered her respects to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after whom the pavilion for the event was named.
“The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is a gift from Atalji,” she said, recounting how the first PBD convention was held in 2003 under the National Democratic Alliance government. “But between 2004 and 2014, it became more a ritual than anything else, its importance severely debilitated.” (Between 2004 and 2014, the United Progressive Alliance held power at the Centre).
Swaraj continued: “In May 2014, when Modiji became prime minister, he breathed life into the PBD. He established direct contact with the Indian diaspora. Have you ever seen any prime minister do this?” she asked.
Swaraj also spoke of Modi’s “successful” speeches and events where, she said, the venues were not only full but “bubbling” with energy. “Everyone just wanted one glimpse of Modiji,” she said.
Her introduction to Modi ended with an anecdote. Someone once told her that they were asked at a restaurant abroad if they were Indian. “Then, the restaurant owner wanted a selfie with them because he said ‘India great country, Modi great leader’,” she said.
So great was her enthusiasm in introducing Modi and members of her government that she forgot to introduce the chief guest all together – the prime minister of Mauritius, Pravin Jugnauth. Swaraj had to make a quick dash back to the microphone to make amends. She established his connection to India by telling the audience about how Jugnauth’s family observes the navratri festival and eats no meat for those nine days.
Next up was Adityanath who, after a brief few sentences on development in the state, swiftly moved to talking about the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. Swaraj too had spoken about Adityanath’s desire to host the PBD closer to the Kumbh so that ‘pravasis’ could make a religious trip out of it. “He told me that the amount of saintly goodwill you earn while taking a dip at the Sangam only doubles when you help others do this,” she said.
Continuing the same theme of the ‘Indian-ness’ of NRIs in Mauritius, Adityanath spoke of how Mauritians are preserving the Ramayana and the Shiva temples there, along with other Indian traditions.
As if on cue, Jugnauth spoke about promoting Hindi as a global language and about celebrating a festival dedicated to Bhojpuri. “If India is unique, Indianness is universal,” he said. He spoke of the government’s favourite subjects such as yoga and alternative medicine. “The International Day of Yoga is a landmark recognition of the soft power that India yields,” he said.
Some people had begun to nod off owing to the echo in the room that muffled the sound. Others were getting impatient for Modi to take the stage. Several people stood up, but possibly for long-distance selfies. With his booming voice, Modi woke up whoever was dozing.
He placed himself as both the prime minister and Varanasi’s parliamentarian. There was some talk of family values and the soil our ancestors roamed on, but it was partially drowned out by local Varanasi crowds chanting “Bharat mata ki jai”, “Vande Mataram” and “Harr harr mahadev”.
Modi’s speech was peppered with familiar slogans - “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, “one earth, one sun, one grid”, “local solution, global application”, and “reform, perform, transform”.
If the earlier speeches were about Modi and Hinduism, Modi’s speeches were about what his government has done. But Hinduism wasn’t off the table for too long. Modi spoke of organising a Pravasi Teerth Darshan Yojana, a scheme under which the Indian diaspora could freely visit prominent pilgrimage sites with help from the government.
He also told the diaspora that they should keenly participate in, and organise events, around Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in October. For good measure, knowing that a large portion of the diaspora is Punjabi, he mentioned Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary too.