Monday, 30th October 2017

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Putting up the big Modi show

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overseas dos are well-managed and choreographed events. But they involve months of planning, money, sustained build-up to the event, organisational skills and management of disparate groups of Indian diaspora, say V. Kumara Swamy and Sonia Sarkar

  • Published 29.11.15
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POWER PACKED: Fireworks at London's Wembley Stadium during Modi's visit

The goal of "UK Welcomes Modi", the organiser of a huge reception for the Indian Prime Minister at Wembley Stadium, London, was clear - it had to deliver the "loudest, greatest and most vibrant welcome" that Narendra Modi had ever seen outside India. And it was successful, with around 60,000 people lustily cheering Modi at the world's most famous football stadium.

The Wembley gathering would possibly not have been the "greatest" if the organisers of Modi's now famous reception at New York's Madison Square Garden (MSG) had succeeded in getting the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. But the stadium, with a capacity of 82,000 people, had already been booked for an American football match that day. The organisers had to settle for the Arena at MSG with a capacity of 20,000.

Between New York in September last year and London earlier this month, and after that, Modi has been trotting the globe with no visible dip in the enthusiasm among non-resident Indians (NRIs). Whether it was in Sydney (November 2014), Toronto (April 2015), Dubai (August 2015), Kuala Lumpur or Singapore (November 2015), Indians living abroad gave him a grand welcome in well-managed and choreographed events.

Almost everything works like clockwork for these shows. Just before the main event - a speech delivered by Modi - dancers, singers, stand-up comedians and others entertain the assembled crowd within the time slots allotted to them. Then Modi takes centre stage, soaking in all the attention, often beginning his speech with a joke or invoking the importance of the country he's visiting and the Indian diaspora there.

A long, often repetitive, speech follows. He touches on his humble origins, how the world is looking at India with great expectations and how it is destined for greatness. He pauses now and then as the audience interrupts his words with thunderous cheers.

He is at his sartorial best, too - in a bright saffron Nehru jacket and yellow kurta at MSG, a white kurta with a light-blue jacket in Sydney and a traditional white kurta with a dark sleeveless jacket and a brown shawl at Wembley.

When an event like the one at Wembley, spread over a few hours, goes off smoothly, it is a mission accomplished for Manoj Ladwa, London-based corporate lawyer and the man behind the event. "Getting Wembley as a venue was the biggest challenge. Only football matches and rock concerts take place there. Nobody has ever done any event like this before. But we did it," Ladwa says.

"This event was a message to the UK that the Indians have arrived," Ladwa adds.

That is pretty much the message the diaspora wants to convey when they throng these events that sometimes even overshadow the Prime Minister's state visit to a country.

But the message doesn't come easy. It involves months of planning, money (the London event cost around US $3.8 million while the Sydney event cost $5,00,000), sustained build-up to the event, organisational skills, management of disparate groups of Indian diaspora and, most importantly, the sustained popularity of the Prime Minister.

"I have met almost all the previous prime ministers but Prime Minister Modi has a unique personality and persona which works like magic in connecting with people," says Jeevan Zutshi, co-founder, Indian American Community Foundation, the organisers of the MSG event.

We can challenge the Congress — it couldn’t have done anything like this for Manmohan Singh’s visits abroad 
— A BJP official

A former official in the ministry of external affairs points out that previous visits by other prime ministers were mostly formal dinners hosted by the ambassador or the Indian high commissioner where top dignitaries and eminent NRIs from the country were invited. "But now it's a celebration. The Prime Minister likes it," the ex-official says. The ministry of external affairs has almost no role to play in these events.

The MSG event in a sense set the template for the events that followed. It started with a proposal by the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) in the US evincing interest in hosting a public event for Modi during his first visit to the US as Prime Minister. The OFBJP had earlier organised small public receptions for Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister. But Modi reportedly shot down the proposal, wishing for a non-partisan event.

That was when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Ram Madhav stepped in. He got in touch with BJP loyalists, including Bharat Barai, a Chicago-based physician who had played host to Modi during his previous visit to the US as a party worker, to organise a "community" event for the Prime Minister.

Madhav visited the US almost two months before the event at MSG - and several times thereafter - overseeing the arrangements. He visited England thrice for the UK show.

Sources in the BJP office say that it was often a "tedious" task for Madhav, who heads the think tank, India Foundation, and has strong NRI links in most countries, to assemble disparate groups in the US.

"Whenever two communities work together, they fight. The most difficult task was to get these diaspora communities together but he did that," an organiser says.

Gradually, the momentum picked up. More than 200 organisations, including religious, regional, linguistic and others groups, joined. An organising committee took shape with various departments for registration, fund raising, finances and legal, logistical and promotional matters.

Now it is a drill that has almost been perfected.

When dates are fixed for a foreign visit by the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) informs the BJP's foreign affairs department headed by Vijay Chauthaiwale, a microbiologist and former vice-president at Torrent Pharma. He then goes into the nitty-gritty of how the visit would be handled outside official engagements. Madhav's strong links abroad are tapped for this.

The size of the diaspora matters while planning these shows. "Whenever we get an indication that the Prime Minister is likely to visit a country, we find out the size of the diaspora. If the size is big, we certainly want the diaspora to organise it," a senior BJP official says. That explains why his visit to Brazil or Mongolia did not result in grand receptions.

With around 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK, it was bound to get the right attention. Chauthaiwale travelled to London thrice on short visits to look at the arrangements. He was also there four days before the Wembley event. It's a routine that happens almost everywhere.

AFFAIR TO REMEMBER: PM Narendra Modi at the Wembley stadium watching fireworks 

"We don't have any written template but there is a general format that we follow everywhere," Chauthaiwale says.

Months before the Prime Minister's visit, an organising committee to host a public reception is set up, with names such as "NAMO in Singapore" or "PMVisitAustralia". These committees comprising mostly individuals close to the BJP get in touch with various NRI bodies, including regional groups and doctors' and shopkeepers' associations. Interested organisations are designated as a "Welcome Partner" or "Reception Partner" and promised passes for the Prime Minister's public event. The larger associations get the larger chunk of passes.

England saw as many as 414 organisations, big and small, registering with the committee.

‘‘Almost no Prime Minister in the past cared much for the Hindu religious organisations in the West because of their secular credentials. But this Prime Minister is different. Temples in the West have huge followings and they bring in significant numbers and money to the Prime Minister’s events,” says Christopher S. Raj, professor of international studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

While many of the “partners” are encouraged to make contributions to fund the event, corporate sponsorship also flows in. In London, for instance, Airtel, the Tatas, Lyca Mobile and many other companies came in to support the Prime Minister’s big show.

Other enthusiastic members contribute in their own way. London-based tour operator, Golden Tours, which is headed by an NRI, offered buses called the Modi Express to ferry people from across London and outside to Wembley and back. 

A month before Modi’s visit, locals hopped on and off the buses for “bus pe charcha” — a take-off on the Prime Minister’s chai-pe-charcha (talks over tea) campaign that preceded the 2014 general election. In Australia, a train named Modi Express carried 220 people from Melbourne to Sydney to meet the Prime Minister, again an initiative by some residents.

For their efforts, the NRIs are given passes to the Prime Minister’s events — and that has led to some squabbling. “Most of the seats for Wembley were given to Gujarati associations based in the UK,” complains a member of a south Indian association in London. Non-resident Gujaratis dominate these events, many complain. 

Chauthaiwale rejects the allegations. “There are many countries such as Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia where NRIs are not primarily Gujaratis. But the events have been equally grand,” he says. “To say that it is an all-Gujarati event is an insult to the diaspora.”

In any case, the organisers hold, there’s a system in place for passes to the Prime Minister’s events. Every registered “partner” is promised a certain number of passes according to the number of members it has, and is given a code for registration. 

For instance, the members of the Jain Vishwa Bharati London (JVBL) could register with the code “RVP1EK” on an online site to be eligible for a pass to Wembley; the Marathi Association Sydney Inc members registered under the “Reception Partner Code” M3CJU for the Allphones Arena in Sydney; members of the Bengali Association, Singapore, registered under the code “0103” for reception passes for the November 24 show. 

“For us, the biggest task was to get the ethnic Indian community and we got them. More than 15,000 people attended the event in Kuala Lumpur,” says Dato Nabhesh Khanna, general secretary, Overseas Friends of BJP in Malaysia. 

There are some unwritten dos and don’ts, too, for these events. Indian American comedian Rajiv Satyal, who performed at the San Jose event in September this year, had to submit a script before the organising committee for approval.

“One of his famous one-liners in a skit is: ‘Indian weather is hot, Indian women are hot.’ We had to request him to drop it,” says an insider. 

At the Wembley show, London-based Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor had to drop her biggest hit Baby Doll from her playlist because the song was shot on former porn star Sunny Leone and was considered “inappropriate” for the event.

The Prime Minister, clearly, enjoys the hoopla. But interacting with the diaspora is nothing new for Modi. When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, he used to often hold meetings with the crème de la crème of the diaspora, mostly Gujaratis settled in the US, often to discuss investment. 

Still, the PMO and the party didn’t want to take any chances for his visit to the US in 2014. After it became fairly clear that NRI organisations were willing to come together, Vijay Jolly, global convener, BJP Overseas Affairs, and minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore toured several US cities, meeting NRIs and encouraging them to be present in New York for Modi’s speech.

A BJP official says that these diaspora events are part of the BJP’s five-pillar strategy of foreign engagement — samman (respect), samvad (communication), sanskriti (culture), suraksha (national security) and samriddhi (trade).

“We have always felt left out all these years. It is only Modi who has recognised us. We feel that we too are part of our country,” says Australia-based IT consultant and national president of the Overseas Friends of BJP, Balesh Singh. “Also, the diaspora wants to know what’s happening to India from the horse’s mouth,” he says.

India also stands to gain from the 25-30 million-strong Indian population around the world. “They are estimated to be worth $400-500 billion. The government expects that these people will invest in India. These big events are one way of giving them something back, even if it is just an address by the Prime Minister,” JNU professor Srikanth Kondapalli says.

Ram Madhav believes that the positive benefits have already started trickling in. He claims that this connect with the diaspora has increased the tourist inflow by 18 per cent in the past one year. 

“I am not saying that all tourists are NRIs, but certainly a lot of NRIs are visiting India now. Also, they get so inspired by Modiji that some have sponsored the construction of toilets in their villages. Some have distributed computers in the schools in their native villages,” Madhav says.

It may not take much time for this goodwill to evaporate, others warn. “If the Prime Minister fails to deliver at home soon on the economic and liberalisation fronts as he has promised, NRIs will stop trusting him and the enthusiasm will dissipate,” Kondapalli says. 

Too much enthusiasm, he adds, could also end up alienating Indians from local communities in some countries. “They will be looked at with suspicion.” 

Right now, though, the enthusiasm is at its peak. Even though the BJP officials try not to project the diaspora shows as “party-centric” events, they can’t but gloat about how much of a “crowd puller” Modi is.  “We can challenge the Congress — it couldn’t have done anything like this for Manmohan Singh’s visits abroad,” a BJP official says.

The diaspora agrees. For Sambhu Banik, a veteran who has headed many associations in the US which have played host to several prime ministers in the past, says that Modi represents the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva because of his “dynamic personality, oration and charisma”. Not even Indira Gandhi at the height of popularity could match Modi, he says. 

“Indira Gandhi’s reception was held in the famed Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. which could accommodate a little over 3,000 persons. Although it was full, it did not generate the kind of excitement and euphoria that Modi did. Indira Gandhi was very popular but not on the scale of Modi,” he says.

A senior BJP member stresses that the competition is intense among the NRIs to make each show “bigger than the last one”. After all, it’s not just Modi’s show of strength — but of the NRIs, too. 

But what does it mean for people back home? Kondapalli notes that this enthusiasm for Modi could have a backlash in India if the economy is slow to pick up. “If people in India see that Modi is being projected almost as the saviour of India abroad when nothing is happening on the ground, they wouldn’t like that,” he says.

Right now, though, Modi’s jaunts have been drawing cheers and jeers in equal measures in India. A pinstripe suit — the stripes turned out to be his name embroidered all over it — which he wore during a meeting with US President Barack Obama in January turned into a PR nightmare. 

His frequent travels are the stuff of social media jokes, too. “Forget black money, bring the PM back,” says one message. “Where do you want to go,” Modi is seen asking Aamir Khan’s wife in another cartoon that is doing the rounds. “Tell me and I’ll drop you off when I go on my next foreign tour.”

But the jokes don’t amuse — or trouble — the organisers of Modi’s foreign shows. His visit to Africa is coming up, and they are going to soon get busy putting up a gala show there. “There is a large Indian community in many parts of Africa,” says a happy BJP member.

Road to reception: 
the template

  • PMO informs BJP’s foreign affairs department on future tours and possible dates 
  • Diaspora’s strength is determining factor
  • Organising committees with the help of BJP office in Delhi l Reception venue is decided by the organising committee 
  • Committees get in touch with India-related groups and bodies to join as ‘Welcome Partners’ and raise funds
  • India-related members are given special codes to register for passes 
  • Local artistes from within community are asked to prepare for cultural programmes 
  • Build-up events are organised before the big show.