Modi at Wembley – the empire strikes back

Modi and Cameron put on a great show, but to what end?

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
19 November 2015

Flickr/The Prime Minister's Office

, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Move over Bollywood! Move over Hollywood! Modiwood rules the world. Prime Minister Modi’s London show on Friday will be recorded as a landmark event in the history of the Anglo-Indian encounter.

Imagine Prime Minister Narendra Modi landing on the stage of Wembley Stadium in the Pushpaka Vimana, the flying machine invented in India. The crowds turn hysterical seeing their God descend in an aeroplane that was copied by the western scientists without royalty payment. This act may have been kept in reserve for Modi’s next gig in the UK.

60,000 Indian spectators had come determined to chant “Modi, Modi, Modi”Modi was bathed in mass adoration as the 60,000 Indian spectators had come determined to chant “Modi, Modi, Modi”. The five hour cultural-political spectacle was described by British commentators as a heady blend of pop, patriotism and propaganda. It was superbly choreographed, with the prime minister of India as the lead performer and the British prime minister doing a warm-up act. 

Modi said India has acquired an equal status. This was reflected in the mega show. The British have an old tradition of coats of arms, banners and bits of bunting, and in India they borrowed more from the Mughal and Hindu kingdoms while staging a display of pageantry. Both the countries are steeped in Ornamentalism.

So the British aeroplanes flew in the sky with a tri-colour trail, skimpily dressed singers performed on the stage and other artists presented Indian classical and folk dances and music. The Team India-Britain has raised the hopes not just of the business leaders in the two countries. Earlier, it produced the dish called Chicken Tikka Masala and Wembley Stadium resounded to Rap Bhangra and a special Hinglish song.

In the famous Delhi Durbar of 1877, the imperial power mounted an extravaganza to impress the natives of its power and glory. At Wembley Stadium, the Indian community staged a Delhi Durbar in reverse. Modi was anointed as an uncrowned king of the British Indians, with Cameron paying homage. Modi's devotees in India had honoured him as Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor Living in the Hindu Hearts) when they voted for him 18 months ago.

The extravaganza that marked Modi’s coronation in the UK cannot be replicated in India, just as the glitter of the Viceroy's ceremony in India always surpassed that witnessed at Buckingham Palace ceremonials back home. The empire struck back on Friday.

Cameron did a great service to millions of TV viewers in India watching the Wembley mega show. They went to sleep reassured by the British prime minister that, “Acache din zaroor aeyega” (Good days will definitely come)! Cameron wanted to send the message that Modi’s election-eve promise was not an empty slogan. Cameron’s assurance was important because Indians have more faith in the words consecrated in England.

Cameron’s faulty Hindi thrilled the audienceCameron’s faulty Hindi thrilled the audience. The crowd was even more thrilled to hear him say that one day a British-Indian would be living in 10 Downing Street.

The affluent Indians ditched the Labour party a long time ago, but Cameron’s statement and the very presence at the Modi show would turn thousands of Indians into committed Conservatives.

Narendrabhai, who hugged Cameronbhai publicly, was only too glad to lend a helping hand since the Labour people tend to rake up outdated issues, such as the suppression of the civil rights that has been adopted by all democracies as a standard technique to curb terrorism.

David Cameron ignored the normal protocol and attended a community meeting addressed by a visiting Prime Minister. He ignored a newspaper columnist’s advice to “hold your nose and shake Modi by the hand”. He paid his tributes and joined his sari-clad wife away from the stage to listen to the English translation of the Hindi speech through headphones.

Why did Cameron find it necessary to spare so much time? To show his love for India and Indians based in the UK. He wanted to learn the style of oratory that moves the voters. And he wanted to be cheered by more than 60,000 Britons. This was the first experience of its kind in his long and illustrious political career. A political leader in the UK is thankful if a few hundred persons turn up at his rally. And the expensive event was free for him because Her Majesty’s Government had not paid a penny for this very expensive light-and-sound spectacle.

Cameron must have felt a bit puzzled when Modi unstrapped his analogue wrist watch with flair. Like a magician, Modi flashed it and asked the spectators to take off their non-digital watches. Then the prime minister went on to demonstrate a trick. How to keep dual time with a single watch. He flipped his watch around and it showed the Indian Standard Time. He ended the demonstration with a kind of statement that one expects from his political enemy Lallu Yadav. "As long as the sun and the moon exist, as long as time exists, the ties between India and Britain continue to grow."

Modi said the watch trick showed the synergy between India and Britain while others may argue that flipping the watch in the opposite direction indicates that the East is East and the West is West and never the twain shall meet.

Modi’s gesticulation was a little restrained in comparison to his speeches in the Bihar poll campaign. But the speech abroad did not lack in political content. The audience also got to see a video on Modi’s performance as prime minister.

As for the powerful status of India, his presentation is always riddled with a basic contradiction. If India has acquired a new status, surely, Nehru and all other previous prime ministers of India, including his own party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, must have done something right. But then Modi goes on to highlight public defecation, villages without electricity and the enduring poverty to highlight the failures of all previous governments. Then follows an account of his own record as prime minister that seems to suggest that the history of a successful India began just 18 months ago.

Even as Gujarat’s chief minister, Modi had used every Bharatiya Pravasi Diwas to criticise the then national government through innuendoes and direct attacks. For that he was always cheered by his fans from the USA and UK in the audience.

The key to Modi’s popularity among the Indian diaspora is the power of Hindu nationalism.The key to Modi’s popularity among the Indian diaspora is the power of Hindu nationalism. The demolition of the mosque, the Gujarat riots or the rising religious intolerance in India do not diminish Modi’s popularity, as far as a large section of the Hindus settled abroad are concerned. These sections have enough resources, organisational networks and enthusiasm for event management. Modi is grateful to them for their support in his election campaign in India. The British prime minister was tempted to share a piece of this cake.

In his speech in the stadium, Modi presented a variety show, flipping from topic to topic. Hearing the chant of “Modi, Modi, Modi” and seeing some in the audience wearing the Modi masks, he talked about his vision of the development of India. He indulged in word play and used extended metaphors – referring to James Bond and Brooke Bond and financial Indian bonds in the same breath. Intermittently he asked the audience to reply to him in ‘yes’ or ‘no’, knowing that they would cheer him even if he declared that the sun rises in the east.

The most significant and surprising part of his address came when Modi highlighted India’s diversity. He said it was the nation’s pride and strength. He praised Sufism and pointed out that had that tradition been stronger in Islam, no one of that faith would have picked up a gun.

Modi, in an allusion to the criticism of rising intolerance in India, said the TV channels and newspapers were misrepresenting India. The media in India and the UK have been covering the protest movements against the divisive politics promoted by some of the BJP leaders.

Modi’s references to India’s diversity have been criticised as “hypocrisy” by his political opponents in India. However, these have raised the hopes of the secular supporters of Modi who want him to repudiate those of his party leaders who provoke sectarian confrontation.

Did Modi offer a lesson by observing the Hindu beneficiaries of Britain’s multiculturalism? Or did he conclude that if the pseudo-Hindus win in India, it will be only in Britain that the real Hindus will be flying the saffron flag? When Britain was first struck by the vulgarity of democracy, it was believed that the last of the Englishmen would be found in India!


Liked this piece? Please support us with £3 a month so we can keep producing independent journalism.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData