Modi's superstar welcome at Wembley

Mr Narendra Modi waving to the crowd as he walked around London's Wembley stadium after addressing a welcome rally in his honour last Friday.
Mr Narendra Modi waving to the crowd as he walked around London's Wembley stadium after addressing a welcome rally in his honour last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Some 60,000 give Indian PM rousing welcome at iconic British stadium

LONDON • London's hallowed Wembley Stadium gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a raucous welcome usually reserved for football stars David Beckham and Wayne Rooney as 60,000 people celebrated British-Indian ties last Friday.

Members of Britain's large Indian diaspora, many waving India's tricoloured flag and wearing Modi masks, chanted the visiting leader's name and let out a deafening cheer as he took to the stage for an hour-long speech, which combined soaring rhetoric with detailed policy strategy. "My dear countrymen, I would like to assure you that the dreams that you have dreamt, the dreams that every Indian has dreamt, the country has the capacity to fulfil them," Mr Modi said, addressing the crowd in Hindi.

He called it a "historic day" and attempted to counter accusations of neglecting minorities by paying tribute to Sikhs who had "spilled blood to protect Mother India", although he was more reserved on Muslims, calling for a deeper Sufi influence.

Both Sikhs and Muslims were among around 500 protesters who barracked departing Modi supporters along the fabled Wembley Way.

A police line separated the opposition groups in scenes more often witnessed after a heated football match. Undeterred, Modi fan Kamlesh Chudasama called the event "absolutely fantastic". "Watch out, India is coming fast," he added. "We'll be the superpower soon."

Earlier, the crowd danced in the aisles as they were entertained by singers, dancers and musicians. The iconic British stadium had been thoroughly Indianised for the occasion, with burger vans replaced by kiosks selling chicken tikka and samosas. Inside, the sacred turf had been covered with two giant lotus leaf designs, one in Union Jack colours, another in the white, green and saffron of the Indian tricolour.

The Indian flag had also been recreated by covering seats with plastic sheets behind one goalmouth, where a stage had been set up.

A massive "UK Welcomes Modi" banner showed on screens above the stadium's entrances. Many of Mr Modi's supporters wore orange bandanas and scarves, the colour of Mr Modi's ruling rightist Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The development Mr Modi has done in the last 10 years, since he has been chief minister over there, has been unbelievable," said Mr Suresh Bhojani, 37, from Bolton, referring to Mr Modi's role as chief minister of Gujarat state prior to becoming Prime Minister of India.

Also on stage, British Prime Minister David Cameron garnered applause, telling Indians that they put the "great into Great Britain".

He drew loud cheers when he called for India to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, before bringing the house down with a bold prediction. "It won't be long before there's a British Indian prime minister in Downing Street," he told them.

Mr Modi brought the event to a close by setting off a huge fireworks display that illuminated the stadium as part of Diwali celebrations.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Modi's superstar welcome at Wembley'. Print Edition | Subscribe