Narendra Modi’s UK visit: Pulsating Bhangra beat and kaleidoscope of saris shows true dynamism of Anglo-Indian relations

Like some sort of political Rolling Stone, Mr Modi has become a master of transfixing foreign stadium audiences

Cahal Milmo@cahalmilmo
Friday 13 November 2015 22:41
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Narendra Modi and David Cameron greet schoolchildren who sang the national anthems of Great Britain and India at Wembley last night
Narendra Modi and David Cameron greet schoolchildren who sang the national anthems of Great Britain and India at Wembley last night

For India's rock star prime minister, it was perhaps his ultimate gig. Narendra Modi may have politely enjoyed the Red Arrows and his night at that charming B&B called Chequers. But it took a take-over of England's national stadium to a pulsating Bhangra beat and a kaleidoscope of saris to show the true dynamism of Anglo-Indian relations - and the populist talents of its most powerful politician.

The event had been billed as "UK Welcomes Modi" but the confluence of technicolour cultural celebration and soft power that came together at Wembley Stadium as darkness fell might have been better described as "Welcome to Modiwood".

David Cameron and Narendra Modi stand on stage to sing the national anthems of both Indian and Britain at a rally to welcome the Indian prime minister

In front of 60,000 British Indians, a large number of them waving green and orange scarves while chanting the name of the tea seller turned premier as they walked up Olympic Way like so many football fans before them, Mr Modi humbly but forcefully put himself forward as the embodiment of a resurgent nation as he seized the chance to embrace a diaspora in Britain and beyond.

By way of return, the significant slice of the UK's 1.5 million people of Indian origin squeezed into a corner of north west London, put on a dazzling display of the intermingling of both nations. Britain's foremost Asian beatbox performer rubbed shoulders with the London Philharmonic; the Sub-Continent's most sumptuously rhythmic Scottish pipe and drum band strutted its stuff on the same programme as a Bollywood dance troupe based in Ilford.

With the help of funds gathered from community groups in Manchester to the Tata corporation, the UK Welcomes Modi organisation then lit up the sky over north west London with a fireworks display.

Narendra Modi stands by as David Cameron addresses the welcome rally at Wembley Stadium

As Jaswant Desai, 34, arriving with 50 fellow British Indians on a coach from Leicester, put it: "This is a once in a lifetime chance to show what it is to be British Asian. Wouldn't it be cool if when people say 'Wembley' from now on they thought of Indian hip hop and Diwali fireworks as well as Wayne Rooney?"

But for all the magnificence of the dancing troupes and enthusiasm of the waving of Indian and Union flags, the star turn was always going to be the man who rose from a family of grocers to the political leader of a sixth of the planet's population.

Mr Modi's British counterpart can only dream of profiting from the sort of the heady mixture of political rally and X-Factor laid on last night for the Indian prime minister.

Which is why it was probably best that David Cameron, at such pains to impress his visitor with this week's juxtaposition of the planet's oldest and largest democracies, served as the warm up act for his counterpart from Gujarat.

Mr Cameron paid tribute to what is perhaps Britain's most successful ethnic minority, deepening a political courtship which saw him attract significant Asian support to his party in his general election victory - and in so doing sent the stadium into raptures by offering up his job. He said: "It won't be long till there is a British Indian prime minister in Downing Street."

But it was Mr Modi who everyone had come to see and he did not disappoint from his podium above the hallowed footballing turf (it turned out Britain's hospitality did not quite extend to allowing the crowd on the Wembley pitch) of the former colonial power.

In a 45-minute speech, the Indian prime minister touched on matters from the parallels between James Bond and Brooke Bond tea to a drive to harness solar power to provide his compatriots with a steady supply of electricity. But throughout his discourse was a geo-political theme - India is coming and its once coloniser might do well to pay heed.

He said: "Today people will not just shake our hands but hold them for a few seconds. The world today recognises India as a power.. We don't want charity from others. What we are look for is equality. Whoever speaks to an Indian, speaks on the same level and on the same footing."

Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power 18 months with a landslide powered by promises of freeing the economic potential stymied by the corruption of previous administrations and undertakings that any hint of sectarianism seen during his governance of Gujarat, when hundreds of Muslims died in rioting in 2002, were buried in the past.

Ever since, like some sort of political Rolling Stone, he has become a master of transfixing foreign stadium audiences. Last year he played New York's Madison Square Garden to a sell-out 18,000 crowd, following in the footsteps of the Beatles and Muhammad Ali.

For many of those in the Wembley crowd, Mr Modi enjoys similar stature. One volunteer organiser, who had taken time off from his job as a City banker, said: "Modi is the first Indian leader of his type - he stands on the world stage and he connects the diaspora. You have to understand he is an inspiring force for so many Indians, in particular the young. We've never had a prime minister who tweets before."

To judge from the delirious chants of "Modi, Modi, Modi" from within Wembley, the Indian PM was largely preaching to the converted in the stadium. British Indians are arguably the UK's most successful and valued minority - a study this week showed they are the ethnic group most likely to go to university after the Chinese. Two Indian families - the Hindujas and the Mittal dynasty - feature in the top ten of Britain's wealthiest people.

But for many others, there is also unease about the Indian prime minister. The promised economic reform remains slow while a recent upswing in ethnic violence in India has spurred concerns that Hindu nationalism has not been entirely excised from the BJP's agenda.

It is perhaps for that reason that last night's show was being televised live for audiences among India's 25 million-strong global diaspora but also at home, where images of Mr Modi being feted both by the diaspora and the British prime minister will do his ratings no harm.

Outside the stadium, Gurdeep Singh, 54, from Slough, had staged a lone protest against what he and other British Sikhs feels is a lack of action over the desecration of holy scriptures in India. He said: "We can and must shout. But how can we be heard if India can come here and put on the biggest fireworks display we've ever seen?"

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