THE ECONOMIST: Why Indians Love Madame Tussaud's

Modi putting Cameron in the shade. Pic courtesy of the Economist (via AFP)

Modi putting Cameron in the shade. Pic courtesy of the Economist (via AFP)

IT’S EIGHT o’clock in the morning, and your correspondent is among a 20-strong crowd of press gathered at Madame Tussauds in Baker Street for the unveiling of the wax figure of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. Led into the world leaders section, the unnervingly-lifelike Mr Modi stands outside 10 Downing Street beside Barack Obama and Angela Merkel; David Cameron and Francois Hollande look on from the background. It is a surreal morning; anyone could be forgiven for wondering why there’s such fuss and fanfare over an inanimate object.

Yet Madame Tussauds is a big deal to Indian tourists in London, and its popularity is attested by the fact that Madame Tussauds will open a new branch in New Delhi in 2017. For those visiting the British capital, regardless of age or gender, Madam Tussauds ranks alongside Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square as a must-see. Earlier this month Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan chose the museum—with his own figure in the background—for the launch of his latest blockbuster “Fan”. In 2004, Satya Paul, a major Indian fashion house, hosted a glamorous fashion show there.

India’s fascination with Madame Tussauds is tied to its growing collection of Indian figures, with Mr Modi’s introduction bringing the total to 11. Indeed, the seven Bollywood actors, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi and Mr Modi reflect India’s increasing prominence on the world stage. For Indian tourists, there is a feeling of pride and prestige in finding your cultural icons—such as actors Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan—rubbing waxy shoulders with the likes of George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. Mr Modi, meanwhile, has joined a select group of world leaders and statesmen, including Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. It confirms India’s great-power status on the 21st-century world stage. 

London’s—and, by extension, Britain’s—acknowledgment of India’s muscle is significant, especially given the close industrial relationship between the two (Tata Steel and Port Talbot are obvious examples; there is also Jaguar, Land Rover and Tetley’s Indian ownership). These cultural and political figures are powerful, positive representations of India, which for centuries has been framed through Orientalist stereotypes of snake charmers, arranged marriages and subjugated women.

There is a sense that India is telling its own story and writing its own future. Despite major question marks over India’s economic growth and the “upliftment” of its hundreds of millions of have-nots, the idea that India is a 21st-century superpower has been repeatedly boosted by Mr Modi. His lobbying for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and his Hindu-nationalist plotline of India as a resurgent ancient civilisation that must reclaim its place at the world’s top table, are part of the same campaign.

This unerring sense of purpose in the globalised world is at odds with Britain’s own navel-gazing about its role, as it contemplates retreating into isolation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of British Indians—like the 60,000 who turned out to welcome Mr Modi at Wembley Stadium in November—lap up his charismatic leadership, strident international statesmanship and savvy PR. Now the selfie-loving prime minister has given adoring fans the chance to grab a photograph with his twin at Madame Tussauds. A curious museum established by a French émigré 180 years ago has become a repository of the hopes and dreams of a modern India. The relationship between the local and the global has never felt so dizzying, intertwined or bizarre.