By the time Air India One took off from London’s Heathrow Airport, Narendra Modi had achieved what he came here to do. His departure went virtually unnoticed, with the eyes of the world now focused on Paris and the unfolding tragedy there. But while events on the international stage barely left Modi and his team time to reflect on the impact of his UK visit, they had reason to be satisfied with the political and economic rewards it brought.
Not that Narendra Modi had it all his own way. There was a wide and diverse selection of people doing their utmost to take the shine off his visit with their protests and denunciations of him. It became something of a three-day long battle to see who could make the loudest noise and garner the most publicity. But with the British government determined to do everything it could to make him feel—and appear—welcome, it was a battle Modi was always going to win.
If the view from the windows of Air India One took in Wembley Stadium as it gained altitude, the VIP passengers would have seen the famous arch lit in the colours of the French tricolour: blue, white and red. Just a few hours earlier the tribute had been in saffron, white and green. The 135 metre high London Eye, the iconic Ferris wheel on the Thames, was similarly illuminated. The RAF’s Red Arrows display team staged a fly-past in Modi’s honour with the jets’ trademark exhaust also billowing out India’s national colours.
None of this is normal. Prime ministers come and go through London all the time. They are rarely, if ever, given a reception remotely approaching the one laid on for Narendra Modi. That prompted many in the media here to ask the obvious question. Why? What’s so special about this guy?
Those journalists who knew a little more about Modi’s controversial past were even more perplexed. For the best part of a decade after the Gujarat riots he had been persona non grata so far as the UK government was concerned. Now it seemed he was very grata indeed.
The slogan for the visit was ‘Two Great Nations, One Glorious Future.’ This was a deliberate attempt to focus minds on the potential opportunities to come for both countries and to bury the past as quickly as possible. It was a nice try, but it had only limited success. In the case of Narendra Modi, for many people the past helps define and explain the present.
Modi and his advisers were never going to persuade a sceptical British media to make the story about the future, no matter how glorious. What they could do was to use the spectacle and theatre that surround all his foreign visits to distract attention from both the problems at home and the awkward questions about ideology and religion. To succeed in that ambition, Modi’s final night appearance at Wembley Stadium had to be the biggest and best show of his career as a performer on the world stage and it was.
The team had three different audiences in mind as they planned the trip. In order of importance, they were the public back home in India, the NRI population in Britain (or at least the pro-Modi section of the community, which given the huge number of people of Gujarati descent living here is a substantial chunk), and the wider British public. For David Cameron and his advisers at 10 Downing Street, the order of priorities was different, but there was a mutual interest in making this a blockbuster occasion.
Coming as it did so soon after the terrible drubbing the BJP had just received in Bihar, the London visit was just what 7 Race Course Road needed. Instead of confronting the reasons for that defeat and answering the criticisms both from within his party and outside, Modi could effectively change the subject. Bihar had seemed to be of critical importance while he was touring the state trying to replicate his successful campaign in the general election. In the wake of his failure, the sooner it could be wiped from the headlines the better. TV pictures of yet another tumultuous reception from Indians living abroad were just what he needed.
Once again the NRIs proved their worth to Modi. Led by the indefatigable Manoj Ladwa, a close friend of the Prime Minister, they staged the most spectacular welcome for a visiting head of government that the UK has ever seen. Even without the star attraction, the Wembley show would have been a triumph. The dancers, musicians and singers who performed throughout the afternoon were magnificent. By the time the two PMs took to the stage the crowd was already fired up with enthusiasm, ready to cheer each and every reference to India’s strengths and future potential.
Wembley Stadium itself, the second largest in Europe, was the perfect setting. Well almost perfect. With its open roof it was distinctly chilly. Modi remarked that he’d been warned that London would be cold, “but not this cold”. And after a dispute with the caterers, apparently over the provision of vegetarian fare, there was no food available to warm the crowd. But none seemed to spoil the occasion. We know that Modi likes everything about him to be the biggest, the best and the most impressive. So if he was coming to Britain, only Wembley would do.
The size of the crowd and the enthusiasm they displayed were Modi’s not-so-secret weapon. All of the almost 60,000 people in the audience will have returned to their communities enthused, each of them an ambassador for Modi carrying the message that others should keep the faith. They built him up and he returned the compliment, praising them for their contributions to British society at all levels and making them feel good about themselves.
Although the spectacle of Wembley was quickly knocked from the headlines by the events in Paris, the welcome helped answer the question ‘why?’ The wider British public, many of whom were still only dimly aware of Modi even now, could see that he was not just an ordinary visiting premier. The announcements of trade deals, rupee bonds, strategic and defence cooperation and so on were important. But it was the symbolic impact that Modi wanted most and he got it. If all that most Brits absorbed was that things were changing in India and that the country and its people had a new-found confidence then he will have been happy.
Had Wembley been the curtain raiser to the programme rather than the climax, the tenor of the visit as a whole might have been different. As it was, it got off to an uncertain start. The British were first introduced not to a prime minister who inspires devotion and applause, but to a prime minister with difficult questions to answer. And at least here in London he couldn’t just brush them away.
On day one of the schedule the organisers were worried that it might all be going badly wrong. Almost all the newspapers as well as the TV and radio were giving plenty of space to Modi’s critics. Hundreds of writers, including well-known names like Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, wrote to David Cameron calling on him to take note of what they called the ‘growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India’. For a while the story led the bulletins on BBC radio. Mumbai-born Anish Kapoor, the British Indian artist whose sculpture was a centrepiece of the London Olympics stadium, went so far as to allege that, ‘A Hindu version of the Taliban is asserting itself.’
The noisy crowd of demonstrators outside Downing Street as Modi arrived for his first meeting with Cameron greatly outnumbered the much smaller number of rather subdued supporters on the other side of the road. At the news conference that followed the BBC reporter who was called to ask the first question challenged Modi to explain why “India is becoming an increasingly intolerant country.” The Guardian newspaper asked David Cameron if he felt comfortable welcoming a man who for years “was not permitted to visit this country because of his record as chief minister of Gujarat.”
Modi was forced to set the record straight, pointing out that he had never actually been banned from the UK. As for what he called “the other matter”, he said there were only a small number of incidents in a country of 1.25 billion, but insisted, “We do not tolerate these incidents under any circumstances.”
If Modi was angered by the line of questioning, he didn’t show it. Nevertheless the occasion won’t have made him any more likely to give Indian journalists the opportunity to question him in the same way back home. There was much talk of the cultural ties between Britain and India during the visit, but here was evidence of a very significant cultural difference.
In the UK we rarely if ever give our political leaders the superstar treatment. We expect them to be accountable, not just to parliament but through the media whose job it is to quiz them on behalf of the people. British public opinion would not accept for long a prime minister who shielded himself behind public statements and an avalanche of tweets while leaving the questions from journalists to just blow in the wind.
David Cameron did his best to help his guest and get the focus of the discussion back onto the future partnership between India and Britain, but he couldn’t avoid the question of Modi’s past altogether. He made an oblique reference to the “representations from the British government” following the 2002 killings, but pointed out that since then Modi had received an enormous mandate from the people of India. The implication was that Modi had earned the right to move on from earlier controversies.
Cameron wanted the visit to be a success at least as much as Narendra Modi did. He wants British companies to get a slice of the opportunities promised by India’s potential growth and development. He’s very keen for the City of London as a financial centre to be the main portal for investment in the country. He wants New Delhi to be a reliable partner in the fight against international terrorism and cyber crime. And he had his own domestic political interest in milking the occasion for all it was worth. Of the three different audiences that both men were addressing, by far the most important to Cameron were the British Indians.
The Conservative party’s election victory earlier this year may not have been as dramatic or as historic as that of the BJP in 2014, but it was marked by some very significant shifts in people’s voting habits. Non-White voters supported the Tories in larger numbers than ever before, and among Hindus and Sikhs the evidence suggests a majority backed the Conservatives for the first time. The political significance of this has not been lost on David Cameron and his colleagues. Cameron went after the Hindu vote at the election with gusto and it paid off. He believed that his party’s pro-business, pro-enterprise, pro-family stance would appeal to British Indians. He even used the slogan, “Ab ki baar, Cameron sarkar,” something Narendra Modi joked meant he owed him some royalty payments.
So Wembley was of vital importance to Cameron too, even though in his own country he was just the warm-up man, there to introduce the star of the show. Support acts often have as much to gain from a successful performance as the headline performers, however, and that is certainly true in this case. From his first words, “Namaste Wembley!”, Cameron worked the crowd for all the political benefit he could get from it. He even went so far as to predict that it wouldn’t be long before there was a British Indian prime minister in Downing Street. That will have raised eyebrows among the frontrunners to succeed Cameron when he stands down, as he has promised to, before the next election, but if it helped consolidate the Indian vote for the Conservatives none of them will mind too much.
For the Labour opposition, which used to count on the backing of most British Asians regardless of their religion, Wembley was one long nightmare. The party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a long-standing critic of Narendra Modi. He failed to appear even when Modi addressed parliamentarians at Westminster on his first day in town. The two men met in private shortly before Modi departed and it was widely expected that Corbyn would raise human rights concerns, although by then the media’s attention was elsewhere.
Back on board Air India One, Narendra Modi was soon on his way to the G20 summit in Turkey. He may have looked back on the criticisms from the media, the vocal demonstrations and the unenthusiastic response of the leader if the opposition as a series of unwelcome irritants, but in all probability little more. The visit to the UK didn’t make his problems at home go away. It won’t make it any easier for him to get his way in Parliament. It won’t put off his political opponents who after Bihar are increasingly convinced that he’s vulnerable. But it will have further burnished his image abroad and helped increase the flow of investment that is so crucial to his chances of delivering on his promises.
“We are all winners today,” David Cameron told the crowd at Wembley Stadium and he was probably right.
Lance Price, a political commentator, worked at 10 Downing Street as an advisor to Tony Blair. He is the author of, among other titles, The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India