While William and Kate’s tour lacked the charm of his mother Diana’s trip 24 years earlier, the British press also reinforced traditional images of India
By Sajeda Momin
When a westerner thinks about India, the words that immediately come to mind are poverty, slums, Bollywood, cricket, wild animals, natural disasters and of course, the Taj Mahal. The recently concluded India tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and its coverage in the British press reinforced all these traditional images and did little to change the narrative to an India that is modern, vibrant and economically strong.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the Queen during a trip to the UK last year, he urged a royal visit to India. He had hoped that a high-profile tour would showcase the country’s “Make in India” potential and he could court foreign investment that he so desperately needs to fulfill his electoral promises. British Prime Minister David Cameron was more than happy to present the future king and queen as a return gift to Modi for allowing him to participate in the diaspora rave that Modi had organized in London, knowing fully well that it would be nothing more than a photo-op for William and Kate.
Hence, at the bidding of Her Majesty’s government—which in layman’s terms means an official tour paid for by the taxpayer—Prince William and Princess Catherine set off for a week-long jamboree of India and Bhutan. They were accompanied by their personal assistants, stylists, hair dresser and a pack of more than 60 journalists and photographers to record their every movement for royal watchers back home.
The last royal trip to India that garnered as much media interest was 24 years ago when William’s parents Charles and Diana, then still married albeit unhappily, visited the country. Diana—from her engagement to the heir to the British throne in early 1981—had caught the imagination of the world’s media like no royal before or after her. She was known as the “world’s most photographed woman”, with the paparazzi dogging her wherever she went. She also knew how to use the press to her advantage, particularly during her bitter divorce from Charles. Their visit to India is seen as the place where the fairytale marriage began to unravel publicly.
The iconic photograph of Diana seated alone in front of the Taj Mahal, the monument to love, was beamed around the globe. And Richard Kay, a columnist with British tabloid The Daily Mail, reminded us on the day the Cambridges’ were to visit, that the Diana photo “was both symbolic and eloquent. It said: ‘I am alone and I am unloved.’” It was Diana’s opening shot in the acrimonious break-up that was to lead to their official separation nine months later. The picture was all the more poignant as only 12 years earlier, Prince Charles had been photographed alone on the very same marble bench as a bachelor promising to return one day with his bride. They were on the trip to India together but Charles, rather than accompany his wife to the Taj, preferred to go to Mumbai to speak to a group of Indian industrialists.
Much water has flowed down the Yamuna since then—Diana is dead, Charles has married Camilla, the woman Diana blamed for being the third person in their marriage, and her sons have grown up and let bygones be bygones. However, for the British media, the most important part of William’s and Kate’s itinerary was the visit to the Taj and whether the prince would follow his parent’s footsteps and sit on the bench which is now informally known as the “Diana seat”.
Unlike the Diana photograph, the pictures of a relaxed, happy and loved-up royal couple, did not manage to find space on the front pages of all newspapers. But it was one of the few shots of the trip that all the papers carried, emphasizing that William had finally laid his mother’s ghost to rest. But the couple’s spokesman was at pains to point out that they had only decided at the last minute that they would sit and be photographed on the bench and it had no relevance to Diana’s memory. “That is the place where people who come to this beautiful place sit to admire its symmetry. It’s about what other people do. For the Duke and Duchess, this is about new memories,” he told the press.
Kate, though pretty, was unlike Diana and did not manage to make it to the front page of all the British papers every day during her trip to India. Tabloids such as The Sun, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail, which are the most avid royal-watchers and which Diana single-handedly sold in the millions, still devoted a fair amount of news-print and online space to the couple’s visit each day, but not necessarily as the lead story. Broadsheets like The Times and The Daily Telegraph were a lot more selective in the pictures and stories they considered, while in the left-of-center newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent, one was hard-pressed to find even a mention of the day’s royal happenings in India.
The other images of the trip that received maximum coverage were of Kate’s “Marilyn Monroe” moment as her white dress blew upwards during a wreath-laying ceremony at India Gate; playing cricket with Sachin Tendulkar; visiting the slums in Mumbai, which William claimed was the most significant part of their trip; a Bollywood party and feeding baby rhinos in Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
Of course, Kate’s fashion choices were always noticed and commented on and The Daily Mail even did a feature on Indian fashion designer Anita Dongre’s factory in Navi Mumbai after Kate wore her dress to play cricket. However, it focused on the fact that the “slumdog seamstress” didn’t even know who Kate was and only earned £3 per day. Some papers continued the slumdog theme with a story on how disappointed Rubina Ali and Azaruddin Ismail, the children plucked from poverty to star in the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, were, to not be invited to meet the couple either in the slums or the Bollywood gala.
When the couple removed their shoes at Gandhi Smriti to pay homage to the Father of the Nation, Kate’s mangled feet with corns and bunions received media attention, with some papers even proffering doctors’ tips on what footwear she should use. Pictures of the couple feeding baby rhinos got critics of the royal pastime of hunting quite livid. Former editor and television personality Piers Morgan claimed that the pictures made him feel sick and called William a hypocrite. “Prince William likes rich people hunting down these same beautiful animals, killing them in elongated torture sessions, posing for repulsively smug photos next to their rotting carcasses and then severing their heads for their office walls back home,” he said, arguing that William cannot be both the self-appointed face of global wildlife conservation and a supporter of commercial hunting.
The couple’s spokesman described the tour a “huge success”, claiming they had very clear objectives when they planned the trip and they had achieved all of them. “They wanted to establish a real enduring relationship with India and its people. They got to shine a spotlight on issues they care about. They had a serious day focusing on conservation,” he said.
However, not everyone agreed with his assessment of the visit. Carol Malone, a senior columnist in The Daily Mirror called the trip “positively lackluster”. “The media has done its best to jazz it up with endless pictures of Kate’s dresses, her hairdos and action shots of her throwing herself into various national sports. But, in the main, it’s been boring,” wrote Malone. She blamed the couple for being boring and personality-less and went a step further arguing that Kate was no Diana. “She’s like a cardboard cut-out of the real thing— nice clothes, good figure, but no spark,” added Malone.
If Modi had hoped that he would bask in the reflected coverage and become a household name in the UK, he must be extremely disappointed. The Duke and Duchess’ lunch with Modi found very little mention, except for the reference to Prince William bringing up the plight of steel workers in Port Talbot, Wales, thanks to the closing down of the plant by Tata. Interestingly, the only other time that Modi received coverage was in an unusual story about how white William’s hand was after shaking it with Modi. “William maintained royal composure in what appeared to be a vice-like grip. Modi’s palm print could be seen for some seconds after the handshake as they posed for photographs,” said The Daily Telegraph, almost accusing Modi of being too enthusiastic (read aggressive) with the Prince.
Rather than changing the India story, the tour gave William and Kate an image makeover. Their longest without their children, the trip’s real success lies in the fact that it gave the royals an opportunity to have a paid holiday to a place Kate has apparently always wanted to visit, and silence critics who have been complaining recently that the young couple are lazy and work-shy.