Tory devotion to ‘dear friend’ Modi says so much about needy post-Brexit Britain

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Narendra Modi and the Hindutva right are turning the world’s largest democracy into the world’s ugliest democracy. Muslims are denied the security of full citizenship. The independence of the Indian courts, the civil service, the electoral system and the media has been horribly compromised as the Bharatiya Janata party creates, if not a one-party state, then at least a state where only one party can win.

Far from criticising Modi, or maintaining a diplomatic distance, Britain’s Conservative government is endorsing Modi’s policies and prejudices.

Indian opposition politicians have been in the UK for conferences organised by the Indian diaspora and meetings with politicians and academics. Not one representative from our ruling party was among the hundreds they met. Conservative ministers and backbenchers gave every appearance of taking a collective decision not to engage with any opponent of the Modi regime.

On 16 May, there was a reception in parliament for Salman Kurshid, a former Indian cabinet minister, Pradyot Manikya, chair of India’s Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance, and other opposition figures anyone concerned about India would be pleased to interview. Conservative MPs said they would attend. But they never showed up. Labour politicians said Priti Patel had ordered a boycott. I put the allegation to the Conservative MPs concerned, but they did not reply to my emails.

She calls Modi “our dear friend” and praises his “dynamic leadership”. But maybe the order came from an operator below her pay grade. British-Indian activists said a boycott did not need to be instigated by anyone as grand as the home secretary. British BJP activists need merely tell a Conservative MP with a strong Indian vote in his or her constituency to steer clear and they would obey.

Tellingly, not one of the British opponents of Modi I interviewed would go on the record. Even in the UK, crossing the BJP brings trolling from its activists and, in one nasty case, demands that the critic’s parents be expelled from their temple.

Kurshid and Manikya are not well-known in the UK, but Rahul Gandhi has the glamour of royalty. As the son of Rajiv and Sonia, grandson of Indira and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, British politicians should want to meet him for the sheer celebrity value. Once again, not a single Conservative minister or MP was in parliament last week to greet one of Modi’s most articulate opponents.

When Gandhi came to London in 2018, the Conservative Friends of India said it would host an event for him in parliament. In those days, Tories wanted good relations with India but would not take sides in its political struggles. Or so they said. Just before Gandhi was due to speak, they cancelled the reception. Indian journalists reported that the BJP had made its unhappiness known. And in Tory circles, what the BJP wants, it gets.

There are decent democratic reasons for Tories to appeal to Indian voters

For Conservatives who criticise the identity politics of the left, this ought to be the moment when they see the left’s face looking back at them in the mirror. Like “anti-imperialists” and Islamism, or the pro-Israeli right and Zionism, the Conservative party is now so aligned with the BJP that it is allowing the most oppressive versions of religion and ethnicity to define the whole of a religion or ethnicity. Hinduism is no longer a spiritual but a nationalist creed.

Indians are no longer the country’s 1.4 billion inhabitants but Hindus and approved minorities, whose place is guaranteed, but not Muslims, who face religious tests for migrants before being assured of citizenship.

The secular ideals of 20th-century India are too easily dismissed as a western imposition. They were as much a reaction against the west as western: specifically a reaction against the British empire’s attempts to divide and rule the subcontinent on the basis of ethnicity. Now divide and rule is back with a demonic energy, with a large portion of scapegoating served on the side.

The cancel culture of sectarianism follows. British Conservative politicians are now tacitly agreeing with the BJP that Hindu nationalism opponents are not “true” Indians or Hindus but are, in the intimidatory phrase of Boris Johnson’s allies, at the time of Brexit, “the enemy within”.

There are decent democratic reasons for Tories to appeal to Indian voters. The refugees from the African nationalist persecutions in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have been model meritocrats. Idi Amin and his contemporaries stripped them of everything in the 1970s, but they fled to Britain and worked hard to ensure their children could prosper.

Naturally, the Conservative party could appeal for their support. Equally naturally, conservatism appeals to the more recent influx of high-caste Indian professionals. The notion that minorities have a duty to vote for leftwing parties is itself a species of racism. In happy societies, your ethnic or religious identity is not your destiny and it is to the credit of the Conservatives that Indian voters do not think it is the racist party of leftish nightmare.

If pleasing Indian voters means not being over-eager to confront BJP sympathisers in their midst, that is democratic politics for you. It’s hardly as if anti-Hindu feeling on the left isn’t already driving them into Conservative arms. The despairing Labour MP Navendu Mishra wrote in 2021 of a “hierarchy of racism” in the Labour party and some groups, most notably Hindus of Indian heritage, being “fair game”.

And then there is Brexit. There is always Brexit. Desperate for a trade deal with India to show it has not shoved its country into an unmitigated economic and strategic failure, the Johnson administration will bite its tongue if silence will help it secure a trade deal with India.

Whether it is staying silent out of necessity or choice is an open question. During his tour, Gandhi spoke well about how the BJP was “strangling” the independence of every potential centre of opposition. “There is not a single institution that is not under attack and it is systematically done. The judiciary, the press, the bureaucracy, the election commission… every single institution is systematically being filled by people who have a particular ideology.”

With a few modifications to reflect local circumstances, that description would apply as well to Boris Johnson’s Britain. The Tories are not in an alliance of electoral or diplomatic convenience. They are in love.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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