Describing Indian PM Narendra Modi as ‘controversial’ is a bit of an understatement. Despite his landslide victory last year, he has split the world’s biggest democracy with his radical and dynamic views. So how does such a man manage to pack out the biggest venue in England?
I was one of (almost) 60,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium on Friday who had come to hear Modi address the nation in what was being billed a ‘historic occasion’. And what was so momentous about it? Well, the fact that he attracted the largest Indian diaspora in the world – and that is despite being politically shunned by the USA and UK in the past.
His reception was no less than that of a rock star. Europe India Forum, the organisers, put up an exquisite showcase of British Indian talent from India and Britain. The diversity in music and dance forms was symbolic of multicultural India and how this talent has spread across the globe.
I had heard and read about ‘Modi mania’ but experienced it first-hand on Friday – men in their 30s were dressed in traditional Indian dhotis that were made of the Indian flag (pictured). Others were dressed in his trademark ‘Nehru-style’ jacket, turbans and paper masks of Modi. Quite possibly the most surprising were the Modi scarves branded as though they were football supporters’ scarves…grown men and women were visibly excited and ecstatic to see their iconic politician.
I’m sure many Brits must wonder why British Asians are so connected to politics in India. The majority of spectators who I saw there were either first or second generation economic migrants so I suppose for them; home is still India. India’s policies affect how they can travel back home, it affects their land and properties out there, their families and investment. But what was resounding from their reaction was the importance that culture and tradition meant to these British Indians.
Despite the colour of their passport, they were cheering in pride at any reference to their cultural heritage – be it the classical dance forms like bharatanatiyum or kathak, or the folk dances of garba and bhangra – to the modern day musical talents like Kanika Kapoor and Alisha Chinoi – they are proud of their country’s exports.
And this is something that Modi touched upon. He said British Indians are living examples of how different cultures and traditions can live successfully and in harmony. The fact that spectators cheered equally for both the British and Indian anthems gave me a sense of belonging to both nations. India may be the mother land, but Britain has fathered British Indians. Their identity depends on both nations.
Some aspects of Modi’s speech that stood out for me were the subtleties with which he appeased two of the biggest minorities in India. He touched on the historic sacrifices Sikhs have made and the contributions they continue to make in modern India. Given the turbulent climate in Punjab at present, Modi claimed to have listened to the concerns of British Punjabis and promised to see to them. What was more subtle and also very intelligently worded was his wish that Sufism had grown in India so there would be no reason to pick up a gun (referring to Islamic extremism).
Modi is a showman. He is known for being a fantastic speaker. His delivery is with such conviction, so relatable to the masses and completely unscripted, which makes you believe that he believes in what he is saying. If he doesn’t need a script, surely the points he is discussing are close to his heart – either that or he has a great memory!
His humour appeals to his admirers. The way in which he discussed the rescheduled flights between London and Ahmedabad from 15th December 2015 summed up his witty intelligence. And, although I’m not a fan of his and I believe he has a lot to answer for, I couldn’t help but be sucked into his speech. He is intriguing, entertaining and interactive – three skills that, sadly, the very intelligent but socially inept Manmohan Singh lacked. He couldn’t be a people’s prime minister, whereas Modi very much is.
I suppose Modi’s humble beginnings as a chai-vala on Indian trains makes him more relatable to the average India, and he appeals to the dreams of success. He has literally gone from the streets of poverty to managing the biggest democracy in the world. Not even Indian cinema has dared such a film plot.
He has a dynamic approach to policies (to say the least). He believes following Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps can end two of the biggest issues of concern today: terrorism and global warming. Call it simplistic but he makes a point that the average Joe can understand. He cleverly touched on slavery and injustice during the British Raj, which Gandhi protested against, and now that very Gandhi stands in Westminster overlooking the Houses of Parliament. Such imagery is powerful because it leaves impressions on the hearts and minds of people.
After hearing the mammoth 80-minute speech in which Modi listed India’s successes, how it has become a global competitor and expects equal footing with the rest of the world – I couldn’t help but wonder how intimidated the West must feel. The very nations that banned him from entering are now signing multi-billion pounds deals. Despite what David Cameron and Barak Obama feel about Narendra Modi, they cannot escape the fact that India is a force to be reckoned with in the 21st Century, and sadly for them, Modi runs India.
Moreover, with the millions of Indians in Britain and the USA, they can only but maintain a ‘special relationship’ because economies are at stake. And ultimately, money talks.