On Sep. 28, 2014, a grey-bearded, bespectacled man in a saffron jacket was welcomed onstage at New York's Madison Square Garden to a packed stadium. A crowd of 18,000 people was chanting his name. And to them, he said, "I have a dream."

The man was Narendra Modi — Indian prime minister and so-styled rock-star politician.

Modi was, of course, channelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech and the crowd of Indian-Americans loved it. The event amplified his larger-than-life stature that had propelled him to victory in the 2014 Indian general election.

Since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party came to power with a historic majority, he's commanded attention and adoration around the world. World leaders — Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin — have queued up to woo him. 

'He incarnates the American dream.' - Mathieu Boisvert, Centre for Studies and Research of India, South Asia and its Diaspora

Canada, too, is set to get its share of Modi when he lands in Ottawa on Tuesday for a three-day tour, visiting also Toronto and Vancouver. 

But the global fervour over Modi — or as it's been dubbed by some, the Modi Wave or TsuNaMo — is a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign years in the making, say experts, and masks some potentially troubling elements of his leadership of the world's largest democracy.

Delivered on change

Modi, known as a Hindu nationalist, was chief minister of Gujarat (one of India's most industrialized states) before becoming prime minister. During Modi's tenure from 2001 to 2014, Gujarat saw rapid growth. The economy expanded by about 10 per cent a year between 2004 and 2012 — above the Indian average of about 8.5 per cent. It laid the foundation for his political success.

Modi drove the state forward "to a remarkable degree" according to Lance Price, the British author of The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi's Campaign to Transform India.


Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party wear masks of Modi and celebrate ahead of his swearing-in ceremony in Mumbai in May 2014. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

"He promised 24/7 electricity to the whole state, which he pretty much delivered on. He built roads. He improved infrastructure dramatically," said Price.

"If he actually hadn't delivered change that people could sense on the ground … then he wouldn't have been able to spin it as a personal achievement because nobody would've believed it."

While quantifiable economic targets may be hard to spin, personal history — the stuff of legends — is not.

Rags to riches 

Modi's rise to power is the classic rags-to-riches story. As a young boy, he helped his dad serve tea at a railway station in Gujarat. 

"Here, we're talking about foundation myth," says Mathieu Boisvert, director of the Centre for Studies and Research of India, South Asia and its Diaspora at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

"He incarnates the American dream."

That myth, says Boisvert, was orchestrated in part by comic books about Modi's life the BJP released a couple of years before the 2014 election. It installed in people's imaginations a "myth that the guy is benevolent, that he was a nobody, and because he was hard-working, because he was dedicated to his parents, because he was religious, he became where he is."

"I'm not saying that he didn't work, but that there is a very strong marketing infrastructure behind the man," he said, which helped him get resounding success across India and pushed his Gujarat economic model to the forefront.

'He never ever considers failure an option.' - Lance Price, author of The Modi Effect

Modi's economics ("Modi-nomics"), though, could be at odds with his Hindu nationalist politics.

He came under heavy criticism for anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. The then-chief minister was accused of doing little to stem the violence, the latest eruption of long-running tension between Hindus and Muslims in India.

Modi was never charged but the allegations led the U.S. and Canada to ban Modi prior to his election as prime minister.

Since assuming office he has emphasized his economic policy and bolstered his foreign policy while seemingly stifling his Hindu politics.

But Boisvert is unconvinced.

What if Modi-nomics fails?

"I didn't see him soften his right-wing Hindu stance. I'm seeing he's not talking about it openly," he said, adding that Modi often gives out the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text, to world leaders when they visit.

He also primarily speaks Hindi or Gujarati during public appearances, which could alienate religious and ethnic minorities.


A Muslim activist from India's main opposition Congress party shouts anti-government slogans during a protest in April 2002. The activists were protesting against Modi, then-chief minister of the riot-racked state of Gujarat, blaming him for not controlling the religious bloodletting. (Reuters)

Kanta Murali, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for South Asian Studies, said though the BJP has been more moderate when in power, it has a history of polarization. If Modi fails to deliver on his economic promises, she wonders what that could mean for the religious communities in India.

"Will he and the BJP resort to the types of tactics that we've historically seen when they've been in trouble — which is the tactics of religious polarization and identity politics? So for me, that's the main question mark on Modi: that if he doesn't deliver on growth, what does that mean for the political impact?" she said.

Price says it's difficult to predict the future, but one thing about Modi is "he never ever considers failure an option."

"He knows if he allows the Hindu nationalist tail to wag the dog, that will scuttle his chances of being a successful prime minister as he's determined to be," said Price.

"What he really wants to be remembered for, which is the development of India, is what he identifies with and not with nationalism."