On Board The Modi Express In London
The Modi Express is bursting at the seams as it trundles around Unit 2 of the dreary Industrial Estate of Ruislip, a suburb of north west London. Exuberant Gujarati families who are riding the bus begin with a high pitched chant of Om Namah Shivay interspersed with tuneless snatches of Jana Gana Mana. There is an air of infectious excitement as tri-colour khandvis are enjoyed with cucumber sandwiches.
Mac from Ilford is the only Sikh on board, and as he negotiates the over full bus around a turn he tells me they have clocked 500 miles from Enfield, onto Woolwich, forward to Leicester, Leamington Spa, Birmingham and now London, on a mission to generate excitement amongst the Asian community in the UK.
This is part of a series of 'Chai' events which are a nod to 'the "Indian Dream"- where a tea boy can make it to the Prime Minister.' The passengers of the bus are from the Atma Vignani Dada Bhagwan Foundation, a spiritual group that will be attending the grand Modi welcome event at Wembley on Friday the 13th. Vinod Shah, 75 is amongst the few who is aware of the election debacle at Bihar, but says the issues of intolerance or election defeats are not something the local community is worried or even aware about. "All I would like is a direct flight from Heathrow to Ahmedabad", he says wistfully.
Even as academics warn, intelligentsia frets and editorials in the New York Times, the Guardian discuss the implications of welcoming a "dangerous politician" into the UK, the founding member of Europe India Forum Nath Puri and leader of the UK Welcomes Modi Group silences all naysayers with the canine analogy that the BJP seems to have appropriated as a leit motif, much to the concern of dog lovers around the world "When an elephant walks, there are lots of dogs who bark. And the elephant keeps walking!"
Puri emphasises that the purpose of Modi's visit is pure and simple development. " I don't have to say sorry for what's happening in India anymore- I am proud of what is India" he says tearfully at the first high tea event in the run up the visit.
While the British PM Cameron has visited India three times since he came to power, this is the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in a decade. India is now the third biggest source of foreign investment in the UK, and with an estimated 1.7 million Indians in the UK, it is a landmark visit. After meeting the diaspora in New York, Sydney, San Jose, Dubai, Toronto he is finally in the UK today, and will bring in a "second Diwali" at Wembley stadium at an event on Friday the 13th which is described as "the biggest political reception of any world leader"
Wembley is hosting a critical England vs France match on the 17th, and it is very rare that the hallowed stadium has been opened for a political event of this scale, which will see more 60,000 people on the day.
As part of the celebrations the PM will take questions which can be tweeted or posted via the new Modi App (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id1016781909?mt=8) and the person with the 'best' question will win a chance to meet PM Modi in person. A nod to Bollywood will mean we are treated to a new song performed by songstress Kanika Kapoor - along with 600 artists who will enliven the turf. The Hinglish lyrics are slightly bewildering ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9r3XNRXZtw) but the message is high pitched- long live the Union Jack and the Tricolour.
Elsewhere in Westminster, Poonam Joshi who heads the 'Indian Ladies in UK' group, is adding finishing touches to the 8m blanket made of 2000 hand crocheted squares contributed by "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian ladies- not just Modi supporters”, a colourful winter warmer that will be gifted to Modi as a symbol of 'unity within diversity’.
And in the air there are preparations for a special tricolour flypast by the Red Arrows RAF Aerobatic team to welcome Mr Modi. Mr Cameron joked "I can't tell you how many officials in the ministry of defence it took to find the orange smoke!" His facetious words may hide relief too as the alleged ‘lost files’ relating to the purchase of 20 Hawk advanced jet trainers worth $400 million earmarked for the Surya Kiran aerobatics team have evidently re-apparated; reports suggest the sale is back on track and part of the agenda for this trip.
In the words of Mr Nath Puri, "Modi is literally a God given person , there is nobody in the UK who doesn't wish him well!"
Suresh Grover of the Southall Monitoring Group would not agree. Grover who was described by the Guardian as one of the hundred most influential people in Social Policy in the UK heads the AWAAZ human rights watch dog which is behind the controversial and possibly illegal "Modi NOT Welcome' giant hologram that was projected on Sunday night on the Houses of Parliament for 7 minutes (the Met Police has just confirmed to me that while they were made aware of this, 'no crimes were reported')
A hologram for a hologram? I ask Grover. "Yes that is correct, the idea came from Modi's own use of social media, and we decided to use an aspect of his campaign to project our response to his visit"
Grover's AWAAZ network along with radical Sikh and Kashmiri groups is expected to meet in thousands to protest the visit outside 10 Downing Street simultaneous with the Modi Cameron meeting at midday on Thursday. The Met police says they are aware of the demonstrations and will meet this with "proportionate and appropriate” security.
It is not only NGOs who are worried about this handshake. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish National Party MP Alex Salmond are amongst 40 MPs who have signed a parliamentary motion in an Early Day Motion, asking the Prime Minister David to raise human rights concerns with the Indian PM Modi tomorrow.
But the mood amongst the Asian Peers is upbeat, with many making a special trip to the House of Lords even though Parliament is not in session, to hear his 30 minute speech today (Thursday the 12th). The Asian Peer Lord Loomba who was the recipient of the Pravasi Bharatiya award this year said he welcomed Mr Modi while praising the proposed levy of the Swachh Bharat 0.5% cess. Loomba added that while Britain was the first country to revoke Modi's visa after the Gujarat riots, it was also the first to visit Gujarat to renew ties of friendship.
When I asked Baroness Shreela Flather, the fiery cross bencher who is the great granddaughter of Sir Ganga Ram, and the first Asian woman to receive a peerage, on her expectation from this trip, she answered with characteristic pithiness "Nothing! All they will discuss is Business, I want to know what happened to the promises of the Beti Bachao campaign?” "I would ask Mr Modi what is he doing about bringing women into the economy? Even Bangladesh has a better track record in this regard" On the issues of religious polarisation in India, she avers "This concerns me hugely. We thought he would not allow this to fester, he should really start looking at this issue" However Flather has a positive message for those demonstrating against Modi saying firmly "Nothing is perfect, give him a chance.”
After lunching with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Modi will head to the 'rockstar style' reception that will take place from late afternoon at the Wembley Stadium which will end with the "greatest fireworks display in the country" a show that promises to put Bonfire night to shame. There may be no gilded carriage or Xi Jinping style red carpet welcome for Mr Modi as he is not head of state, but the diaspora-led pomp and show will make up for the lack of official ceremony.
A final visit is to the real Kohinoor in the crown - the Jaguar Land Rover factory in the West Midlands. Reports suggest an estimated package of US$15 bn of trade deals is likely to be clinched in this trip.
Back on the Modi Express, this is exactly what Manthan Fadia wants for his family- Kashvi,4 and Mokhsh, 18 months who will be cheering for Modi at the Wembley reception. Fadia was a resident of Astodia -the inner city area in Ahmedabad which saw much of the 'heartbreaking' communal violence.
But he insists the blood shed is a thing of the past. "The young are blind to religion or divisive talks. We want development, jobs, security. We welcome Mr Modi in the UK"