Those expecting fireworks in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech saw them only in the sky. He came. He saw. But for once, not everyone concurred even though the stereophonic rhetoric won the day.
British Prime Minister David Cameron set the standard high with a crowd pleasing speech replete with a clamour for India’s stake on the UN Security Council and a slick delivery of a ‘good days are here’ in Hindi. He struggled to pronounce “kemcho” and “acha din zaroor aayega”, but the audience greeted it with great admiration.
Modi, a pastmaster of the mike, played his audience well. Regrettably, not many people at home were listening because the time of his speech was off by nearly three hours.
Modi struck two early notes. India’s strength in its youth and the fact that it has, as a nation, adopted poverty as a pet, and protected it when it should have shed it.
Wembley was reasonably full with the 400 Indian associations having shepherded their flocks into the second largest pen in the world. The roar from 40,000 throats that greeted his arrival may well have sent a tremble through the Thames and for a while the ashes of Bihar and the muck-raking anti-Modi brigade were forgotten.
But only briefly.Waiting for hours is energy-sapping and the novelty of hearing ‘Modi,Modi, Modi’ can wear thin as it mingles with predictable religious chants and Bollywood hits.
Much of the talk was raised to superlatives about India’s potential and it was a slow river wending its way to hard facts. He sought refuge in India’s diversity of languages and religions and cultures and asked why it should not be kept as India’s strength rather than making it the country’s weakness.
But he did not give any concrete answers except to step out to bat for the Sikh community and their historic role as protectors of the nation from farms to fields of battle.
In a guarded but powerful statement, Modi warned of actions that would be initiated against those who fomented trouble, clearly connecting it to its neighbour and using the Sufi tenet of peace.
Those waiting for him to grasp nettles had to keep waiting. It was all vanilla praise and general cream with little crust. Modi then led his words into a genial moral science lesson just short of preaching. India’s virtues were set to music as Modi fell back on the threadbare angle of the world…once they shook hands, now the world holds India’s hands tight.
This was all very good and heartening but it broke no new ground.
With his customary ability to slide seamlessly from one dance into another he catapulted globs of praise into the audience and their role in building Britain.
With practiced ease he segued into the equation as equality and parity with the world not gratitude for favours. The ‘feel good’ essence was overwhelming if a little tedious like all self praise.
He mentioned terrorism in the same breath as global warning but left them both as responsibilities for collective response but did not mention specifics.
Progress, high hopes, the battle against the common enemies of mankind, the role India had taken will get it to its destination.
“Seventy years after freedom we have 18,000 villages without electricity…I must do it,yes,” and the crowd roared yessssss.
Now we slid into Mark Anthony and the Friends, Indians, Countrymen Q and A.
Still nothing concrete. Yet, the crowds roared its approval.
He played the audience. Never thought poor me, a tea seller, would raise the flag on the Red Fort. Deafening applause.
By the end of the first thirty minutes there were no sound bites, merely the same old, same old Mother India affection reflected in the schemes with girls’ toilets in schools taking priority and the 190 million new bank accounts for the financially deprived.
In a play on the word Bond (James, Brooke to Rupee) Modi introduced an opening for direct foreign investment. And much of it in military spending and solar energy. Modi also took a little dig at the media and said India went beyond what was projected on the small screen.
He scored points with anecdotes of success from young people in the minority communities in small towns and villages.
The cultural programme preceding the speech was long and unwieldy and full of globs of clumsy culture and while the colourful pageantry was riveting enough for a start, though it just went on and on.
NRI talent is, at best, amateur and tacky though steeped in slabs of sincerity. What you get at home is far superior than the time-warp moves by naive UK NRIs trying to generate tempo and excitement.
There was also a forced gaiety what with the stinging rebukes from protestors underscored by rank bad taste and an undeserved rabidity taking their toll, especially when you consider Modi is accustomed to ladles of syrupy adulation on his trips abroad.
This sloganeering was hurtful and confusing. And it has dogged him since IAF One touched down yesterday.
Way beyond dinner time at home, Modi may also have lost much of his audience and the opportunity to personify shining India which had become relatively dimmed by the unfortunate timing of this state visit so soon after the Bihar election.
Communalism, intolerance, the beef controversy, motor-mouth legislators, safety of women, states of unrest, the war with vets, corruption in the police: these were underscored by not being invited to the party.
Clearly he opted not to wash dirty linen on foreign soil. Fair enough.
Modi went near the water but he did not get his feet wet.
Bikram Vohra is the Editorial Director of London-based Asian Lite newspaper