Narendra Modi and James Bevan
A man who tweets ďGod is greatĒ because Her Britannic Majestyís envoy has condescended to notice him stands condemned from his own mouth for servility and opportunism. Those who are outraged that James Bevan, Britainís high commissioner, should forget human rights to shake hands with Narendra Modi ignore the far more serious matter of this manifestation of the Indianís inferiority complex.
Bevanís gesture is of no greater consequence than Caroline Quentin, the narrator of A Passage through India, a television serial now running in Britain, saying that Navratri in Ahmedabad is Indiaís best festival. But people seem to believe it will prompt millions of Gujaratis to vote for Modi in December and persuade the Bharatiya Janata Party to anoint him its prime ministerial candidate. If so, we might as well drop all pretence of being either an independent republic or a civilized, modern state committed to liberal secular values.
Itís understandable that Britain should cosy up to Modi. China and Japan have already started dealing with him. Next yearís Gujarat investment summit will probably include Australian and American participants. Why should Britain miss out? With new missions in Hyderabad and Chandigarh and plans for five more trade offices across India, the British aim to double trade by 2015. Growing friction with the European Union, the setback in the £26-billion plan to merge Britainís BAE Systems with the European Aeronautics, Defence and Space Company, and Ford Motorsí closure notice demand new initiatives. ďOur economy relies on Indiaís for jobs, investment and opportunities like never before,Ē Hugo Swire, the junior minister whose portfolio includes India, told a recent International Institute of Strategic Studies conference in London. That was after acknowledging that 700 Indian businesses employ 90,000 people in Britain where the Tatas are the ďlargest corporate employerĒ.
In saying that 1.5 million Indians constitute Britainís largest minority, Swire could have mentioned that ethnic Gujaratis are among the most prosperous. Some, especially those from East Africa, are active in politics at all levels. Many also raise funds for the BJP. Their quiet pressure on government policy on India probably outweighs lobbying by the friends and family of the three British Muslims who were butchered during Gujaratís 2002 massacre. The explosive Lord Nazir Ahmed, who championed their cause, has lost much of his credibility because of a number of reasons.
Some lingering folie de grandeur might also be understandable in a country that, to repeat Dean Achesonís jibe, lost an empire without finding a role. Bright, conscientious and conscious of changed times, Swire can make light of the grandeur that surrounds him. Nevertheless, a young Etonian must find it heady to sit under huge mirrors with INDIA in gold lettering in a chamber whose dťcor and twin doors ďto accommodate the visit of two maharajahs of equal rankĒ proclaim imperial glory. The room housed successive secretaries of state for India. Not for nothing did the flunkey holding the laurel wreath above Caesarís head as he rode his chariot through Romeís thundering applause keep intoning in the heroís ear, ďRemember, you are only a man!Ē
But even the overwhelmed Modi must rank pretty low in Britainís pecking order. His god sent a mere career diplomat to Gandhinagar whereas our Mamata was courted not only by Swireís predecessor, Jeremy Browne, but also by Queen Elizabethís second son, Prince Andrew, Duke of York. As Bevan emphasized, his overture did not convey moral approval. It was a pragmatic move born of economic necessity. If Britain is to make the most of Indiaís growth, it cannot logically exclude one part of the country, especially a part to which tycoons like Ratan Tata, who enjoys David Cameronís confidence, pay tribute. Presumably, the external affairs ministry did not forbid foreign missions to do business with Gujarat.
Modiís sycophants run an energetic campaign (Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry, iPad and all those other new media of which I know little) to boost his claim to the prime ministership. Their selling point is that he has outgrown a state whose economy is booming. I find both arguments specious. First, did anyone accuse stalwarts like Bidhan Chandra Roy, Govind Ballabh Pant or Ravi Shankar Shukla of outgrowing their states? No, because these great chief ministers werenít climbers who exploited the state as a stepping stone to further personal ambition. The state was a responsibility where the chief minister had an opportunity of serving his people. As for the economy, Modi inherited an enviably high base. Since then it has largely been a question of management and manipulation like producing land at zero cost for the Nano because he had already acquired a large tract in the name of the university which didnít need it. But even if he transformed barren sand into an oasis of fruit and flower, it would be like saying the trains ran on time in Hitlerís Germany.
Indiaís is an inclusive society. Its survival depends on uniting all its communities in a common purpose. A Bengali Hindu president, a Muslim vice-president, a Sikh prime minister and a Roman Catholic heading the ruling party and coalition reflect this diversity. A prime minister over whom looms the dark shadow of communalism would not inspire the confidence that alone can hold this great nation together.
Modiís government has been cleared of direct complicity in the pogrom. But common sense draws a parallel with the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 when also authority looked away while blood was being shed. What strengthens this suspicion is the absence of any comment on the slaughter to compare with Modiís passionately moving speech immediately after the Godhra brutality which is available in video on the internet. The impression was further reinforced when the chief minister refused to accept a prayer cap from a group of Muslim imams. That rejection stands out so starkly because Indian politicians always ostentatiously adopt the garb of whoever they seek to placate. I can think of Jawaharlal Nehru in Manipuri headdress, his daughter in Naga feathers, Jaswant Singh in Jewish skull cap and Mamata Banerjee in a hijab. Modiís determined spurning of an Islamic sartorial symbol was a sinister and significant reminder of the grisly evidence adduced when his close associate, Maya Kodnani, was jailed for 28 years.
The message of these events is not mitigated by the anger welling in many Hindus over the influx of illegal Bangladeshis, Pakistani mischief, Kashmiri recalcitrance and Muslim terrorism. A tit-for-tat argument presupposes an alternative to harmonious co-existence as the answer to Indiaís demographic challenge. What could that alternative be? I suspect the authors of some of the abusive letters I get would like Muslims to adjust to Hindu mores or reconcile themselves to subordinate silence. Since neither is likely to happen, we are condemned to eternal wrangling, with the saffron brigade fishing in the waters of communal friction.
Those who accuse Bevan of condoning the Gujarat killings canít be naÔve enough to expect that Britain, Adam Smithís (also Napoleonís) nation of shopkeepers, would forever sacrifice self-interest to human rights. India didnít dream of doing so in relations with the Soviet Union or Myanmar. The other charge of meddling in our domestic affairs recalls Singapore where a foreign journalist was free to praise local politicians but was accused of interference the moment he criticized them. If boycotting Gujarat wasnít meddling, doing business with Gujarat canít be meddling either. Indians arenít puppets at the end of a string to be influenced by what Britain does or does not do. We must resolve our own political dilemmas.
The compliment James Callaghan paid Indira Gandhi for holding elections in 1977 was vested with quite unrealistic importance. Modiís overjoyed ďGod is greatĒ indicates he, too, is slavishly flattered by British courtesies which he expects to smooth his political path. What price, then, the maturity and independence of Indian voters?