Posted by: John Elliott | April 19, 2018

Modi hits a winning streak in London

An ego-boosting day from breakfast to dinner

Fire-side chat with an audience of 1,500

Narendra Modi is on a winning streak in London, which he is visiting for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that began this morning.

narendra-modi-queen-elizabeth-ii-pti_650x400_81524129006He had an ego-boosting day yesterday, having flown in from Sweden the night before. He was met at the airport by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary.

Theresa May, the prime minister, gave him breakfast, met him again at a technical centre, and saw him at a formal Commonwealth leaders’ dinner in the evening. He met the Queen for tea (above) and saw Prince Charles (below) at the Science Museum. No other Commonwealth leader had so much attention.

Between tea and dinner a new avatar emerged – in advance of the general election due in a year’s time – of a quiet and thoughtful Narendra Modi, full of simple homilies like “work hard”. There were stories about his youth and life from a tea seller’s stall to a “visitor to a royal palaces”, interspersed occasionally with issues such as surgical strikes on Pakistan and dealing with rapes.

Modi was speaking at an event in Central Hall, Westminster called Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath, (Talking of India, With Everybody) with an audience of 1,500 cheering people of Indian origin, many of them from his home state of Gujarat.


Here was the prime minister, renowned for being a tough unapproachable politician and a great orator used to bellowing out his messages (as he did at a spectacular last time he was in London in November 2015), sitting with an interviewer gently answering questions in an often fatherly-like manner.

He found time during the day for an astute political move when he garlanded a statue of Basava, the founder saint of the Lingayat community, which is an important vote bank in the coming Karnataka state assembly election. The community is controversial because it is trying to to carve an identity away from mainstream Hinduism, so it was neat for Modi, a powerful Hindu nationalist leader, to show respect for their founder.

“Indian Commonwealth”

India is also getting a good press with newspaper stories about how it’s will overtake the UK and become the biggest economy in the 53-country Commonwealth by GDP in the next year or so (the timing will partly depend on the value of the pound and rupee). “You could almost call it the Indian Commonwealth,” BBC Newsnight’s presenter semi-joked on television last night, remembering it used to be called the British Commonwealth.

Narendra-Modi-addressing-Indian-diaspora-in-LondonThe meeting with Theresa May capped off a number of deals and agreements covering terrorism, cyber and other international crime, space, technology sharing through a hub at the UK high commission in Delhi, cleaning the Ganges, and skill development – said to total £1bn .

There is even to be an ayurvedic institute on traditional Indian medicine (combining the interests of Prince Charles and Modi , who have developed a rapport after a dinner together in Delhi last November).

But the two leaders failed to renew a memorandum of understanding that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK. This had been expected but talks will continue. It links with the sensitive issue of visas, with India wanting more access to the UK, as well as the UK pushing India for faster and greater immigrant returns – and with Theresa May’s on-going crisis over the Caribbean “Windrush generation” migrants.

The Bharat Ki Batt event (below) was of course pre-arranged – rigged, some would call it. The interviewer was Prasoon Joshi, a branding expert and a poet who heads the McCann World advertising group that worked on Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Joshi asked the mostly gentle questions, with a few prearranged ones coming from the audience.

IMG_0097The event went on for two hours and will have won over the Indian audience, who will be telling their relatives back home what a nice gentle man Modi really is.

In India there was blanket tv coverage, and the event marginalised several hundred demonstrators who were corralled by police in the nearby Parliament Square protesting over issues such as Kashmir, rape, and a Khalistani independent Punjab (below).

Modi spent so much time talking about himself and his views and attitudes, and how his leadership fitted in with the emergence of India on the world stage, that he teased himself for doing so. Looking at his watch he said, “Some people might say it is time to stop…and say that it’s all stage managed so he can talk about himself!”

But he didn’t stop and went on to answer a series of Joshi’s “last questions”, the final one about how he wanted to be remembered by history. Modi replied that since no-one remembered who wrote the Hindu religion’s sacred Vedas texts, how could it matter how a “nobody” like him was remembered. Earlier he had said, “Modi was not born to get his name included in the pages of history. I just want to do my job and nothing more than that. I do not want to be immortalized in the pages of history”.

“Ask not how I would like to be remembered, ask what India represents to the world….I have no need for fame or riches or power. I have lived through poverty, I am restless for India’s development.”


He is being heavily criticised in India for not speaking out strongly about rapes, Last night he said “Rape is rape … How can we accept this?” and “This is a matter of great concern for the country and these sinners are somebody’s sons…..the rape of a (daughter) is a matter of worry, a shame for the country”. He then turned it into a parental problem rather than one of unacceptable male violence saying, “When a girl comes home late, all parents are worried. When a boy goes out and comes home late, why don’t we ask him where he was?”

Asked about the Indian army’s “surgical strikes” in Pakistan in 2016, he described the country as a “terror export factory” and said the strikes were aimed at sending an unequivocal message to the neighbouring country. “We believe in peace. But we will not tolerate those who like to export terror. We will give back strong answers and in the language they understand. Terrorism will never be accepted”.

Returning to his personal attitudes, he even said: “I always welcome criticism. People sometimes ask me why don’t I speak up against them. But my job is not to shut the mouth of people who are criticising me, it’s my job to think where I am going wrong”.

How other Commonwealth leaders will react to the emergence of Modi as what could be seen as an aspirant first among equals remains to be seen. There are even rumours he will travel in a separate car, not the coach carrying other leaders, when the summit moves tomorrow to Windsor Castle, an hour or so’s drive from central London.

India is adept at mis-managing its international relations, especially with its neighbours, because it has not discovered how to project its power without upsetting others. Modi has a chance to show the lesson is being learned.


  1. Glad of your positive observations; I have followed events as closely as I can from TV, Twitter, Facebook and so on. Yes India being sort of singled out, but thankfully as for so long India was in the shadows, some of it self enforced but also with disrespectful UK PMs, who seemed obsessed with EU Nations and disrespected The Commonwealth; nor could they see oddly that 21st century was going to be Asia’s and there is India, the world’s largest democracy with a rising tide of young peope (whereas China’s population is ageing rapidly). We need them and they need us. If Mr Modi then also found that he was part of a huge Club and that the British Royal Family has genuine loyalty and affection for that Club and he was so well received…that surely is a good thing. Humility shown is also very well received anywhere. Jai Hind.

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