Folk singers, throngs of medical students, and Indian pride—Modi in Shanghai

Modi speaks in Shanghai on May 16.
Modi speaks in Shanghai on May 16.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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SHANGHAI—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked a crowd of some 3,000 Indians living in China to feel proud of their nation and its rich heritage on a May 16 speech, and asked each Indian present to convince five Chinese to visit India.

“Chinese people will understand India better…the world will respect and accept us when we take pride in our own nation,” Modi said, exactly one year after Indian elections catapulted him to power.

Speaking in Hindi for an hour, without notes, in a cavernous hall in the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center, Modi said that India and China combined could solve not just their own problems, but the problems of the rest of the world too.

“On one side there is India and China, on the other side is the rest of the world,” Modi said, referring to the combined population of the two countries.

He said that a new wind was blowing across the world map, that India and China must move in tandem, for the betterment of humanity, “It is the responsibility of India and China, we’ll have to walk together to help the whole world,” Modi said.

Folk singers, medical students, and Modi in sand

Indians of all stripes had had travelled to Shanghai from cities across China, including from Dongguan, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shaoxing, Yiwu, Foshan, Ningbo, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shenzhen. It was the largest such gathering of Indians in China, according to representatives of the Indian Association of Shanghai, a community organization affiliated with the Indian Consulate of Shanghai.

Earlier, hundreds of Indian medical students studying in China had emptied from buses. Each person wore a red sticker on their arm, bearing the number of the bus they had to return to. They lined up in an orderly manner to enter the venue, gamely setting up chants of “Modi, Modi.” The bused-in students and the chants gave the occasion a distinctly electoral feel.

Chinese security was largely invisible, possibly to preserve the festive atmosphere of the occasion.

Prior to the speech, a group of folk singers turbaned in the style of Gujarat and Rajasthan belted out beloved tunes like “damadham musth kalandar,” leading some in the audience to get up and dance. Every now and again somebody started a “Modi, Modi,” chant.

A Chinese artist began a portrait of Modi in sand dribbled onto a light box for easy projection.

Later, a video projected on giant screens showed horsemen galloping across landscapes waving a giant Indian flag. A smattering of quotes about India’s greatness—and world gratitude for Indian culture and thought—drifted on the screen, quotes pulled from thinkers like Romain Rolland, German scholar Max Mueller, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain.

“We practically invented religious tolerance,” said one frame.

The audience rose to its feet for the Indian and Chinese national anthems, the Indian one composed by Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who himself visited China several times.

Modi, a skilled demagogue, spoke with dramatic pauses, sometimes dropping his voice to a near-whisper, acting out a sentence here or there.

“Praise be to Mother India,” Modi said, “Bharat Mata ki –“ and allowed the audience to complete the phrase with “Jai!”

Talking democracy in China

China is normally leery of large gatherings of any sort, but had allowed Modi to address his own lao xiang hui, or “town hall meeting,” and give a speech that Indian media broadcast live to viewers on the subcontinent.

The gathering was even more notable, as Chinese authorities must have known that Modi would speak—however indirectly—of democracy, of Modi’s own landslide election, to the “responsibility given to [him] by the people of the nation.” Modi pointed out that, for the first time in 30 years, India had a majority government.

Modi harked back to exactly one year ago, May 16, 2014, to the morning when election results were to be announced. He referred to the 2.5-hour time difference between India and China.

“When people in India were still sleeping, you were up and worrying about the results of the election,” he said. When he came to power, one phrase rang out all over India, he said.

“The days filled with sadness are over…One year ago, people were resigned about India. They said, ‘this is how it is’. Now, you can meet the eyes of the world and say ‘this is India,’” Modi said.

“Indian pride” was on many lips, as members of the audience spoke of a more vibrant Indian profile overseas.

“It’s a matter of pride, to come hear your PM speak,” said Jayanthi Nayak, a teacher at Shanghai United International School.

Modi also headed off criticism from the opposition Congress Party of his extensive travels, pointing out that he worked hard for the nation, that he would be at work at his next stop, in Mongolia, on a Sunday, while everyone else was resting.

“My inexperience may lead me to make mistakes, but I will not deliberately do anything wrong [against the nation],” he said. “Anyone seeing my CV would not have made me the Prime Minister,” Modi said. “If I wanted to buy shares in your company, would you have let me?”

Controversy behind the scenes

The Shanghai event was not without controversy. Far from a spontaneous gathering of people showing their goodwill, the function required enormous effort and considerable cost, and diplomats allegedly had to obey stern directives issued from Delhi to go ahead.

Commercial bodies including the State Bank of India and the Confederation of Indian Industries sponsored full-page advertisements in Chinese newspapers.

The Indian Association had to scramble to scrape together the funds, turning to Indian businesses whose owners and managers were compelled to open their purses to sponsor the event. The back of the invitation to the event acknowledges sponsors. It lists Adani, a conglomerate headquartered in Gujarat as a “Mega Sponsor,” as well as Reliance Industries Limited, and prominent Indian families in Shanghai such as the Chunilal and Parmar family. Air India, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services also pitched in sponsorship.

The Indian association also struggled to round up audience numbers to fill the seats at the capacious hall, some said. “Finally, they were just giving away the passes,” one attendee said. Although the official count was 5,000 attendees, the audience was obviously far short of the 6,000 that Modi’s government had allegedly requested—the rows of empty chairs at the back of the hall attested to that hope—and nowhere near the 19,000-strong crowd mustered at Madison Square Garden in September 2014.

Rouble Rana, a dentist at Shanghai United Family Hospital boycotted the function altogether. Rana, who calls herself a Hindu, is perturbed that Modi’s government is introducing religious texts into schools.

“A country’s government has to be secular. Period,” she said. Rana also believes that Modi organized the Shanghai town hall gathering purely so that cameras could beam the content back to India.

Courting China’s wealth entrepreneurs

Senior Indian business leaders who have worked in China for a decade or longer agreed that Modi’s visit has increased India’s visibility in China and that would have a trickle-down benefit for everybody.

“Business-related MoU’s would have still happened, Modi or no Modi, but the visit has definitely built awareness about India in China,” said Sumeet Chander, the Shanghai-based head of Greater China and Japan for Evalueserve, a research and data analytics firm.

The country head of another large Indian company, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has witnessed a string of high-level Indian delegations to China, but had never seen the Indian community, diplomatic and civilian, work so hard for a prime minister’s visit.

Madhav Sharma, the Shanghai-based representative of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said that body had signed an agreement on Saturday with Zhisland, a sort of Facebook for wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs.

“They are an organization of 4000-plus private-sector entrepreneurs and include people like the Wanda group chairman, the Alibaba chairman and Legend Holdings chairman,” Sharma said.

The agreement would boost partnerships of Indian and Chinese companies, Sharma said. CII had also signed an agreement with Alibaba focusing on greater business-to-business engagement.

Modi spent part of the morning at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University addressing and interacting with students. He also met CEOs of Chinese companies, while members of Modi’s accompanying business delegation signed a flotilla of MoUs with Chinese firms.

China’s CCTV has given Modi’s visit good play, viewers say, but perhaps as a reflection of the city’s more pressing concerns, on Saturday, popular Chinese-language dailies the Shanghai Morning Post and the Oriental Morning Post gave front page coverage to local internet news: China’s “Three Big” mobile carriers (China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom) shall provide faster broadband and a 30 percent drop in data package prices this year, relegating Modi’s visit to within the newspaper, on their World News page.