If you get invited to an Indian wedding you will be lucky if there is an actual wedding invite. It might just be a line inviting you on Facebook. The details of the entertainment, food and the format will be very sketchy. You will have no idea what you are attending and how many functions there are, how many days it will go on for, where the functions will take place or how each one differs.
Inevitably, when you do arrive, a whole load of unexpected things happen, you are dazzled by the entertainment, warmth of the people and the wide array of food and, if it’s a Punjabi wedding, you will probably dance bhangra and go home having had the time of your life.
The public speech that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made to Wembley Stadium last week was exactly like that. I had heard about it on Twitter and applied for a ticket not really knowing what I was getting a ticket for. There was little information provided on the website. Even on the day of the event I had no idea what to expect and was rather nervous about sitting through three hours of entertainment outside in the British cold weather.
Confusion and a lack of information about what is going on is often part of day-to-day life in India – when for example you try to open a bank account, get a gas cylinder, obtain a PAN (income tax) card or sign up to a mobile phone contract, but usually the unexpected happens and “everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end” – as Dev Patel put it, an apt leitmotiv throughout The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film.
There are not that many prime ministers I would get a ticket to spend a day at Wembley with. But somehow to me the Modi brand is so strong, I felt compelled to attend.
I was in the minority among my non-Indian friends. Many British people I know have not heard of him. They have heard of Gandhi and Mark Tully though. They’ve also heard of Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps because she is a social activist; Modi is more pro-business. So outside my journalistic and India circles in the UK, Modi is not that well known. One British journalist friend said to me: “I find this event quite unusual – a foreign prime minister holding a political rally in the UK.”
Is that what it was? I didn’t know. When I told my flatmates I was going to see Narendra Modi at Wembley Stadium they reacted as if they thought ‘Narendra Modi’ was the name of a cool pop group they hadn’t yet heard of.
They were pretty spot on actually as the event at Wembley Stadium turned out to be very much like a pop concert. A Bollywood one. The compère built the crowd’s emotions up to a point of dizzying excitement before Modi’s entrance. The feeling I got in Wembley Stadium that night was that rare high feeling you get from seeing your favourite band perform your favourite track outdoors at a music festival when the vibe is electric. You can’t get that feeling at the pub or watching TV. It’s a very rare feeling. I also get it when I fall in love. It must be what football fans get at football matches. Somehow I got it at Wembley Stadium. And I’m not even Indian.
The ‘UK Welcomes Modi’ Wembley event was like a masala of Bollywood film, a big fat Indian wedding and a pop concert. It was long, colourful, warm, noisy, dramatic, fun, family-oriented, showy and glittery. It was a mega mela. It also reminded me of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. It was very well choreographed, as if Danny Boyle had done it.
I arrived at 1.30pm and swarms of British Indians were leaving the train at Wembley Park. A man dressed as Modi, with a mask on and draped in an Indian flag, was speaking imitating Modi’s voice and had a crowd gathered round him. The stadium was lit up with the words ‘UK welcomes Modi’ and ‘UK and India: One Glorious Future’. As I got close to it there was a small group of Sikh protestors holding placards demanding justice for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
A small group of people protested outside Wembley Stadium demanding justice in relation to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India
Some Modi fans were arguing with them about their presence.
Inside the stadium Bollywood music was blasting from loudspeakers and the vibe was very cool. It felt like Saif Ali Khan was about to appear on stage. There was a huge white sheet across the football pitch, with two rangoli designs on – one in Indian colours and one in British colours. The stadium looked stunning and was packed.
Wembley Stadium was packed with British Indians for the ‘UK Welcomes Modi’ event
The event began with a series of cultural performances that included classical Indian dance, Indian pop music, Bollywood sound tracks, bhangra, yoga and Bollywood dancing put on by British volunteers from across the UK.
We were told that more than 700 performers and more than 350 others were working backstage to put the cultural entertainment on. One of the compères asked who was from Gujarat and the whole crowd went wild cheering. The yoga sequence was accompanied by chanting of Om Namayah Shiva (a mantra to the Hindu god Shiva).
Various British Indians performed singing and dancing at Wembley Stadium before Narendra Modi’s speech
The musical act that got people dancing and cheering at their seats the most was a rendition of A H Rahman’s Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire.
The entertainment was interspersed with a presenter talking about what is great about India referring to India’s ancient culture, how the idea of zero was invented in India long before the West used it, how India is the birthplace of ayurvedic medicine and how India is the world’s largest democracy.
Next two children walked on carrying flags – one Indian child carrying an Indian flag and one British child carrying the Union Jack. The whole event evoked the strong ties that India and the UK have with each other.
The words ‘What does India mean to you? #modivation’ were flashing on the electric screens where you normally see adverts during football matches.
A short film showed Modi’s achievements since the BJP won a landslide victory in the 2014 general election. It was in Hindi without translation but there were pictures of people sweeping so I assumed the Clean India Campaign (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) had featured.
Next some Indian bagpipe players dressed in Scottish regalia performed bagpipe music followed by what seemed to be dhol drumming performed by the same band.
Next a TV screen showed Modi and Cameron arriving outside at Wembley.
The crowd chanted ‘Modi’ at 5pm as they walked through the stadium and appeared on stage together, having arrived by helicopter. The British and Indian national anthems were sung.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister David Cameron are pictured walking up to the stage at Wembley Stadium to loud cheering
Cameron, clearly popular with the British Indian Gujaratis (who are renowned for being hard-working industrialists), gave a speech in which he said: “It won’t be long before there is a British Indian prime minister in Downing Street” to great applause.
He also said that British Indians’ sense of family responsibility and hard work were values Britain needed more of and Britain wanted India to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
“This is the most spectacular celebration of British Indian relations we have ever seen,” he said.
Next Modi walked up to the stand which had the words etched on it: ‘Two Great Nations: One Glorious Future’.
Modi began his one and a half hour speech in English, then switched to Hindi at which point he asked everyone how their Diwali was. He clearly did not use a speech writer and did not even have a speech at all, just a few notes. It was basically ad lib. I was told by Indian friends that this is how he likes to do things. They said the speech was full of wit, rhetorical questions and allegories – some of which were clearly lost in the simultaneous interpretation I was listening to through headphones. To me it seemed rambling, long and unstructured but none of my friends who listened in Hindi felt so. The British Indian crowd seemed to love it. They erupted in spontaneous applause whenever he said words like vikas (development).
In the speech, Modi covered his achievements to date. The number of new bank accounts opened in India, his Clean India Campaign success and the number of toilets built for girls in schools since he took office, were among them.
He spoke about his plans to construct electricity poles in the 18,000 villages in India that don’t currently have them and said his goal was to achieve 24-hour electricity and a clean India by 2019: the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi.
He also spoke about freedom struggle, how India remains peaceful despite massive diversity and his planned investment in modernisation of the railways. He referred to FDI (foreign direct investment) as needing to be balanced with ‘First Develop India’ and made a comparison between Indian Railways issuing for the first time a rupee bond on the London stock exchange to James Bond to Brooke Bond tea – a comparison lost on me, but one which the crowd seemed to love.
He spoke about how the ease of doing business in India had improved. “For first time we are above China when it comes to corruption,” he said.
“We don’t want to charity from others; what we are looking for is equality. Forty per cent increase in FDI demonstrates world faith in India. The world today is looking at India with eyes full of hope. There is no reason for India to remain a poor country, we have kept poverty on as a pet for no reason whatsoever.”
In the speech he praised Sikhs and sufism, and he heaped praise on British Indians. Modi, a former chaiwallah (tea seller), has a common touch and seemed to be able to connect with the masses.
“You should all feel proud to be Indian. The whole world looks at India with hope,” he said.
“We will not rely on the colour of your passports. You have the right to India, just as I do. It’s the colour of your blood. Wherever members of the Indian community have gone, they know how to live with others while safeguarding their own traditions, integrating with others,” he added.
The main announcement Modi made in the speech was that direct flights would be launched between London and Ahmedabad in Gujarat (the state he was formerly chief minister of) from 15 December.
He said he wanted India to be self-reliant in terms of defence and manufacturing and was endeavouring to have all of India’s weapons and defence infrastructure manufactured in India in the future and he said that India would take the lead in renewable energies, especially solar power to tackle climate change.
He ended his speech asking the British Indians to consider returning to India and using their talents there. “Whatever your potential we have the potential to fulfil it further. I invite you to come to India and do that. India is waiting.”
The speech was followed by fireworks and then the event promptly ended. I walked past a ‘Free Kashmir’ protest group packing up their placards as I wandered to the station.
I was feeling high and euphoric and was glad to have seen Modi in the flesh. Whether he can deliver what the Indian people want remains to be seen. His party the BJP recently lost the state elections in Bihar and in February they lost the state elections in Delhi.
There has been some unrest in India of late with intellectuals complaining about suppression of freedom of expression and India becoming religiously intolerant after four Muslims were killed after being suspected of consuming or transporting beef. The cow is considered holy in Hindusim.
More than 40 writers have returned their awards from the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi, in protest at what they describe as growing intolerance in India.
But Indian actor Anupam Kher led a march against the intolerance protests which he said were defaming India. “Nobody has the right to call our country intolerant,” he said.
I asked one of the British Indians afterwards why Modi was so popular among them. “This is the first time an Indian prime minister has tried to connect with us. We felt abandoned before,” he said. He added he loved the Wembley speech because Modi had expressed lots of innovative ideas in it such as making India a world leader in solar power, which made him feel proud and he said British Indians liked Modi’s long friendly speeches full of wit and allegories. They did not want to listen to a pre-written business speech.
In the same way Mumbai Airport dazzles those arriving at it with its modernity, cleanliness and beautiful Indian heritage on display, this event too demonstrated to the world a new modern strong India with its heritage intact. I can safely say it was my best night out this year.
Has Britain done enough to woo India? What is the special relationship in 2015? Read an analysis by BBC Journalist Zubair Ahmed here.