Modi in the UK
When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India in May 2014, a former aide to the outgoing premier Manmohan Singh described the moment as the birth of a ‘second republic’. He meant that the secular-socialist republic founded by India’s English-speaking elite had run its course. After 25 years of coalition governments, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had won a parliamentary majority. David Cameron was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out to him, congratulating the prime minister elect for getting ‘more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe’.
This marked the end of Britain’s costly diplomatic boycott of Modi in retaliation for the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims, including British citizens, by Hindu mobs in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister in 2002. An investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court cleared Modi of criminal responsibility – but, as the anti-Modi protests in London this week demonstrate, not everyone is convinced. It hasn’t helped that, over the last year, religious minorities in India have endured vicious persecution.
Modi’s worldview was shaped by his service for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary volunteer corps and parent body of the BJP that seeks to recast India as a Hindu state. Despite being elected to the nation’s highest political office, Modi continues to sees himself as the victim of an entrenched establishment of self-loathing secularists.
Anti-minority rhetoric has penetrated the mainstream. A member of Modi’s cabinet told voters in a local election earlier this year that they were choosing between Hindu ‘children of god’ and ‘bastard’ Muslims. The RSS has been harassing religious minorities to ‘reconvert’ to Hinduism, and accusing Muslim men of waging ‘love jihad’ against young Hindu women – seducing them with cash and designer clothes provided by foreign governments, and then converting them to Islam. Hindu mobs have lynched at least four Muslim men over the last two months on suspicion of consuming or trading in beef.
But the Modi who arrived in Britain this week is a measurably diminished man. Secular forces that had grown complacent under Congress have been reinvigorated. Hundreds of distinguished filmmakers, writers and academics have returned their awards to the state. On Sunday, the BJP won only 53 seats (down from 91) in the elections for the 243-member legislative assembly of Bihar, India’s third-largest state.
There have been demands for British politicians to call Modi to account for his human rights record. But outside voices aren’t necessary: a formidable opposition is crystallising across India. Modi may be destined to end up as a one-term prime minister. Indian democracy brought him to power, but it is also his greatest hurdle. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote after the election in Bihar, ‘it is the peculiar dignity of Indian democracy that it so often provides a new dawn.’