Britain Holds Its Nose and Gives Modi the Red Carpet Treatment

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a welcome rally in his honour at Wembley Stadium in London on November 13. Justin Tallis/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

London: It can't often happen that prime ministers from two different countries together address the same audience of tens of thousands, both of them looking to the same people for votes and other political support.

Even more remarkable is that the two politicians use the event to build a hitherto non-existent personal bond and to enlarge business and other links between their countries.

That was what developed last evening at London's vast Wembley Stadium in London when David Cameron, British prime minister, cashed in on a mega event organized by overseas Indians in the UK to welcome their hero, Narendra Modi, India's prime minister.

Cameron had no need to be there—Modi has addressed similar though smaller audiences elsewhere without an escort—but the British prime minister seized the opportunity and even forecast that Indians were becoming so involved in the country that "it won't be long before there is a British Indian prime minister in Downing Street."

Introducing Modi, who of course needed no introduction, Cameron said, "We are all winners today," and even managed a few words in Hindi.

The two men hugged and Modi, who had just lunched with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, responded by starting his 90-minute speech in English. It was, he said, a "historic day for a great partnership between two great nations and two great peoples, and we are celebrating this special relationship."

They arrived at the football stadium 45 minutes late after the crowd had been entertained for over two hours with pop and traditional warm-up acts from a wide array of artists, including north London's Shree Muktajeevan pipe band and drummers, dressed and sounding like Scottish bagpipers, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying both an Indian group and playing the national anthems.

Modi is an expert at mobilizing a mass audience and he excelled on Friday night. He repeatedly thanked Cameron, and started by talking about the two countries' links. Next came international issues such as India showing the world the "right path" for "saving humanity" over issues such as global warming and terrorism.

That all got bursts of rapturous applause, as did promises to supply electricity to Indian villages, install toilets across the country and provide bank accounts for the poor. Even references to attacking corruption got applause. Mention of Modi's home state of Gujarat was several times a winner, especially when he announced that direct flights from London would start next month.

The event was the high spot of Modi's 50-hour stay in Britain, which ends lunchtime Saturday when he flies to Turkey for an international conference.

It began with a rather sombre formal greeting ceremony with grey-coated Scots Guards and a Welsh Guards band in the circular Treasury Courtyard just off Whitehall with David Cameron looking grim, as he did at a joint press conference later in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Modi (who arrived 12 minutes late) looking suitably stern.

The British government did its best to make sure that the trip was memorable and that Modi felt welcomed. In addition to lunch with Queen Elizabeth, Modi made a speech in the UK Parliament and there were neat gestures such as Tower Bridge and the London Eye being floodlit with the Indian national colors of orange, white and green, while a fighter jet flypast had similarly colored trails.

Efforts have been made by both sides to avoid Modi's controversial past as Gujarat chief minister during riots in 2002, and as the current leader of a government and party that is developing a reputation for anti-Muslim Hindu Nationalist rhetoric. But both Modi and Cameron had to face up to the issues with blunt questions asked by the BBC and The Guardian newspaper in a joint press conference.

"India is becoming an increasingly intolerant country. Why? "asked a BBC reporter, having been picked by Cameron to ask the first question. Modi talked about India's Buddhist and Gandhian traditions and said acts of violence would be dealt with.

The Guardian wanted to know how Cameron felt inviting someone who has been shunned for years after the Gujarat riots. The answer was that the past was the past and Modi, elected with a high majority last year, was now the prime minister, so it was right to have the visit.

The questions were tough, but they did allow both prime ministers to deal on the record with an issue that was blocking nearby streets and being aired aggressively in the British newspapers.

Parliament Square and part of Whitehall were closed to traffic for most of the first day. All streets between that area and Modi's hotel near St James's Park were also closely guarded by police in order to keep hundreds of shouting protestors away.

The causes ranged from complaints about the Gujarat riots and Hindu violence to a current dispute over the Nepal constitution, while Pakistani Kashmiris shouted for India to free its region of Kashmir.

British newspapers joined the noise. The Times was one of the worst with a headline saying, "Hold your nose and shake Modi by the hand," while The Guardian went over the top with "India is being ruled by the Hindu Taliban," written by India-born artist Anish Kapoor.

The Daily Telegraph had a large front page photo of Modi headlined, "All is forgiven, Mr Modi," but a news story inside said, "Pomp and ceremony for an ex-pariah." The Independent had a measured editorial titled "All due respect," but that was spoiled by a "blood on my hands" cartoon.

This is not the sort of reception that an Indian prime minister should generate in London, with streets closed and nasty headlines and cartoons, but it showed how unwise Modi has been to allow his government to earn an authoritarian and anti-Muslim reputation that exacerbates memories of what happened in Gujarat.

Modi made a well drafted speech in Parliament on the first day, full of references to the two nation's closeness. An address to businessmen in the City of London's Guildhall was a more humdrum list of (sometimes exaggerated) claims about how the government is reforming India's economy and government.

There was nothing dramatic or unexpected in the announcements that the two sides said totalled some $13.7 billion, but there were useful initiatives on climate change, defence collaboration, cyber co-operation and counterterrorism.

There was a list of over 20 commercial deals, most of which would have happened without the Modi visit. They ranged from a Madam Tussauds waxworks in Delhi to mostly smallish banking, insurance, healthcare and energy investments in both countries.

Overall, the visit has been a success in building new bonds, and it should lead to a significant boost in relations between the two countries, providing both sides follow through on what has been agreed. Modi is being correctly criticized for not progressing multi-billion dollar announcements made when he has visited other countries.

In this case, however, India seems to be one step ahead of Britain, because Navtej Sarna, a top diplomat who has just been appointed India's new high commissioner (ambassador) in London, was part of Modi's delegation, whereas the UK has strangely failed to announce a successor for Sir James Bevan, who ends his posting as high commissioner in Delhi next week.

Both prime ministers have too many other priorities and crises to handle to be able to pay much attention to Indo-British relations once this visit ends, so top level experienced diplomacy is needed immediately to keep the new momentum going.

For Modi, it's now back via Turkey to the problems he left behind in India a few days ago—a divided BJP [the political party he leads] after the Bihar election defeat for which he and his chief aide and party president Amit Shah were mostly responsible, aides and supporters who see Hindu nationalism as a more important priority than economic development and his own failure to establish a record as an effective as opposed to limelight-seeking prime minister.

That's quite an agenda, but will he realize the need for change?

John Elliott 's latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).