Whenever people are talking about scary rising powers, India always tends to get pushed to the back of the queue. When Xi Jinping visited England recently for a very sedate and polite exchange of
money views, the press raged at the government for kowtowing to the Chinese.
When, a few weeks later, Cameron essentially served as the warm up act for Narendra Modi at Wembley, we barely heard a peep out of them. If you still retain any illusions about Britain’s place in the world, go and watch the video of it.
We didn’t cover this here at the time, not because we were suffering from the same let’s-all-ignore-India syndrome as much of the English language media, but because we had something even better in the offing and wanted to do both at once.
Yep. We were behind the scenes at one of Modi’s rock concert rallies, and we’ve got the pics to prove it.
There were several key differences between the London and the Singapore event, however.
Firstly there is every chance that Cameron’s team and the UK Foreign Office genuinely did not realise what the event that he was being asked to speak at would be like. Modi does in fact have a record of holding what are effectively election rallies in foreign countries, but he is still pretty much the only world leader with the chutzpah to behave this way. Most politicians would never think of doing this, not because it’s not a reasonable strategy but because it’s simply not what one does. On the other hand, it’s well known that you could fill a barn with the fucks that Modi does not give, so the FCO should have realised what was about to happen.
The Singaporean government, on the other hand, is rather quicker on the uptake. Moreover, it is determinedly opposed to anything that has even a vague potential for stirring up ethnic division on the island. Nevertheless, while they were plainly not happy about what was happening, they could hardly ban Modi from speaking if he had been invited to address local Indian cultural groups.
Even then, local rumours suggested that originally the authorities banned Singaporean citizens from attending, only relenting when they realised this would make them look bad.
The result was that we ended up holding the event not at any of the excellent venues that Singaporean politicians use for their own events, but at the Singapore Expo, possibly the worst space you could think of for holding a political rally (well, you know, excluding the bathrooms at the New York Port Authority Bus Station, the bottom of the Marianas Trench etc. etc….).
The Expo centre is more usually used for trade shows, and if you’ve ever had to organise a concert or a speech in one of these dismal hangars you’ll know why it’s such a poor prospect. It’s miles outside the centre of town, you have to amalgamate several rooms to get enough seating, there’s no dedicated backstage, your podium has to be in the middle of the space if you want your audience to see anything, it’s impossible to light it artistically, and the room swallows sound like [insert joke about your mom here].
The fact that the organisers managed not merely to get around most of these problems but to turn them to their advantage is a sign of how slick and efficient this operation really is. This was all the more impressive in light of the extent to which Modi’s own events crew were clearly happy to take a hands off approach and leave the organisation to local volunteers, many of whom were amateurs. I assume that Modi’s own PR professionals were present in some capacity (no one can successfully organise something like this from scratch on their first go; there are a million little details that you only learn through repeated practice) but merely provided the organisers with a sketched outline and advice where needed, and otherwise backed off and left them to it – a rare skill, and one that more managers should cultivate.
The result was occasionally endearingly amateurish, but mostly extremely impressive, and created a sense of community and ownership that would have been lacking had they brought in a professional crew to handle everything. There was even a page in the event brochure saying thank you to all the volunteers. Giving us the chance to fuck up was a risk – and some things did go wrong (but then, things always do with an event this size) – but overall it was a risk that paid off massively.
Moreover, the Singapore government could, possibly, have spared itself some of the worry. In the end most of the Singaporean citizens present were members of the local dance groups drafted in to provide the entertainment before and after the big speech. The few locals present were mainly high school kids who’d gone along out of curiosity. (Modi tends to make a point of speaking Hindi in public, whereas most Singaporean Indians speak Tamil, and a lot of them are pretty shaky even at that.)
The motivations of the audience varied. Some were genuine Modi supporters, some were here out of patriotism, a large proportion had come out of curiosity. In fact, Modi tends to provoke extremely strong reactions, both for and against. While the pro camp were out in force at the event, chanting and waving placards, we also spoke to some of those who would rather have chewed their own legs off than attend. One media guy (who shall remain nameless) when asked whether he was planning to go, told me “Hell no. Why would you want to listen to that man? I hate him.” Another said that he would be going, purely because he wanted to “see evil close up”. Others were more detached, saying that they just wanted to see a good show, but did not have any special faith in Modi’s policies.
The event had booked up three of the Expo Centre’s six halls. One for managing the queue and doing the security screening, and two opened up into one big room for the event itself.
Imrpessively, they managed to turn this awkward layout to their advantage by going for a sort of theatre-in-the-round effect. As you can see from the photos, it was impossible to entirely open out the two rooms. So instead the speaker’s podium was placed centrally in the gap between the two, with a lectern that revolved slowly and a whole bunch of cameras projecting onto massive tv screens throughout the room, allowing Modi to speak directly to everyone there, even at the times when he had his back to them.
Again, this was a calculated risk that was skillfully handled and paid off spectacularly. Not only did the fact that the speaker had his back to half the room half of the time not bother the audience, but it meant that all of the tv pictures effectively show Modi entirely surrounded by a sea of adoring supporters. You can watch the video here. The success of the gambit can be entirely attributed to Modi’s own theatrical skills. Would you have the acting chops to deliver a barnstoming oration to 9000 people sitting behind your back?
Actually, the tv pictures made the event look more impressive in more ways than one. In real life it was pretty much impossible for the stage crew to turn the house lights down, making dramatic effects difficult to achieve. The video footage makes it look like we were all sitting in tasteful semi-darkness. In fact, those migraine-inducing halogens were on throughout. Moreover, the lousy accoustics that are built into all trade show venues by design (if they magnified sound like a real theatre the trade events would be hellish) make more or less any music sound like it was coming from the speaker of some kid’s phone on the back seat of the night bus.
You get round this, incidentally, with either lots of bass (if you see the women in the front row wriggling in their seats, you’ve got it about right) or by going acappella. The event crew obviously knew this, and the minutes preceding the speech were occupied by an ident created – I presume – specially for this purpose, with computer graphics to do with dynamic modern India interspersed with quotes about what an incredible leader Modi is, and set against the sort of music that sounds like Right Here Right Now had a baby with Carmina Burana. You know the sort of thing.
If you think this all sounds a bit North Korean (as one of the audience members said to me afterwards), I have been told that Modi’s domestic events ratchet back the hyperbole to a huge degree, instead presenting him as a humble chai-wallah’s son who happened to have the good fortune to be entrusted with running the country. Partly this is because he is less able to play on patriotism at home, and partly because Indians within India tend to be more cynical about domestic politics than their foreign counterparts.
But the thing is, it worked. By the end of it, everyone was on their feet waving – despite strict injunctions from security to stay seated – and cheering. And then it turned out that someone had told the stage management guys that he was arriving a tad prematurely, so we all sat down again and listened to someone singing about Namami Gange, then someone must have told the stage crew that he really was coming this time, so we got the introductory hi-tech ident again, but received it with rather less enthusiasm. Finally, the poor MC was left standing onstage – clearly with some guy yelling “just 30 seconds more” in his ear – begging us to keep clapping while we waited. As mentioned above, the evening was not without its mishaps. (A cynical friend in the audience texted me that they were clearly working on “Indian Standard Time”.)
As for the speech. Well, it was very impressive. You can watch it here. I don’t speak a word of Hindi (and if you don’t either, here’s a summary of the main points), and was nevertheless not bored, despite the fact that it went on for about an hour. To a certain degree, I didn’t need to understand. Even with no Hindi, I could tell that the message and the language was simple and repetitive and probably to do with international cooperation being a good thing. As one Indian author told me, Modi is the message – he’s dynamic and entrepreneurial and can bring the roof down for an hour straight without even a glass of water. What else do you need to know?
One of the supporters in the crowd told me afterwards that it had been so good that it had made all the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
Coincidentally, one of the anti-BJP intellectuals I spoke to said almost the exact same thing to me about a run in he’d had with Modi back in his local politics days, except that he meant it in the sinister sense.
Watch the video for yourself and see which of the two you agree with.