London’s iconic Wembley Stadium was the main stage for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi last week, who addressed his biggest rally outside India, with 60,000 people turning up to hear him speak.
The raucous welcome, usually reserved for football and pop stars, saw thousands of British Indians, young and old, from across the country, waving India’s tricolour flag and wearing Modi masks, chanting his name and letting out a deafening cheer as he took to the stage last Friday (13) evening.
On a chilly night, Modi broke the ice with a joke, saying “they told me England would be cold, but not this cold!”
He called it a “historic day”, and praised India’s diversity and said the country was working hard to tackle poverty.
“I am investing all my efforts and, my dear countrymen, I would like to assure you the dreams you have dreamt, the dreams every In-dian has dreamt, India has the ca-pacity to fulfil those dreams and we are witnessing that,” he said.
The event, which was almost three times the size of a similar gathering held at Madison Square Garden in New York last year, followed others in Australia and San Jose in the US.
Speaking for nearly an hour, Modi attempted to counter accusations of his government neglec-ting minorities in India by paying tribute to Sikhs who had “spilled blood to protect Mother India”, although he was more reserved on Muslims, saying the Sufi tradition of Islam as “the best antidote to terrorism”.
“If Sufism had been propagated more in Islam, people would not have picked up guns,” he claimed as around 500 protesters from Sikh, Kashmiri and Muslim groups stood outside the stadium holding placards against Modi.
Referring indirectly to media reports in the UK over his human rights record in Gujarat and the climate of intolerance in India, Modi said: “Don’t believe the India that you see on TV screens and newspaper headlines. India is far beyond those TV and newspaper headlines, India is much taller and bigger.”
In his speech, the Indian prime minister also touched on the issues of global warming and harnessing solar power. He even joked about the appeal of Bond in Britain and India, using James Bond and Brooke Bond tea to draw attention to rupee bonds for Indian Railways that will be issued in London.
“When we think of rupee bond, we think of James Bond. Take it further, we think of Brooke Bond. James Bond gives entertainment, Brooke Bond gives freshness,” said Modi. “But now we need to go beyond entertainment or refreshment. We need development. That’s why after James Bond and Brooke Bond, we go to rupee Bond,” he said.
In a first, Indian Railways will launch a rupee bond in the London stock exchange.
On solar power, Modi said: “India can lead the world in the arena of harboring solar energy. We want India to be a hub of solar energy and power sufficient. Two dreams that we are working towards – a clean India and India with 24/7 electricity. We have plans of solar, wind energy.”
Modi also announced that the OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) procedure will be simplified.
“We have merged OCI and PIO (Person of Indian Origin) schemes.This too has been simplified. Visa will now be electronically authorised. The Madad (help in Hindi) online platform will make visa, OCI simpler.”
Modi got the loudest cheer when he announced a “gift” to the audience – the resumption of a direct London-Ahmedabad flight.
“When I was Gujarat chief minister… in 2003, I had facilitated a direct flight between London and Ahmedabad during Atalji’s (former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee) tenure.
“But what happe-ned after that I do not want to say. Starting 15 December, there is going to be a direct flight between Ahmedabad and London,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, popstars and singers Jay Sean, Sona Rele, Kanika Kapoor and Navin Kundra provided entertainment with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Before Modi’s address, dance styles from across India, in addition to a variety of dance mixes with Bollywood songs, were showcased. The audience also enjoyed classical, folk art and contemporary music routines as well as a performance by Scottish bagpipers.
A big “UK Welcomes Modi” ban-ner showed on screens above the stadium’s entrances, with the colours of the Indian flag lighting up the iconic Wembley arch.
Many of Modi’s supporters, who travelled to London on special “ModiExpress” buses from across the UK, wore orange bandanas and scarves, the colour of the leader’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
After the speech, colourful fireworks illuminated the stadium as Modi got off the stage to greet audience members and supporters.
Later that evening, India’s high commissioner hosted a reception at the stadium for the prime minister and other high-profile guests.