Monday, October 15, 2012

Narendra Modi - Hugging him close

NARENDRA MODI, the chief minister of Gujarat, is probably the most controversial politician in India. Ever since communal riots in the state, in 2002, in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, died at the hands of mobs, Mr Modi has been a deeply divisive figure. As chief minister at the time, and ever since, he was accused by a host of actors of turning a blind eye to the violence, delaying the deployment of police to protect victims and failing to investigate who was responsible for the deaths. Among others, governments of European Union countries imposed what was, in effect, a travel ban for Mr Modi, making clear he would not get a visa to travel to European countries. At the same time, many ambassadors and high commissioners in Delhi formed a deal that they would never meet the Gujarati chief minister directly, even if more junior diplomats regularly did so.

On October 11th, ten years on, the British government has broken ranks, announcing that its high commissioner in India, James Bevan, would soon visit Gujarat and, almost certainly, meet Mr Modi. This is sensitive for several reasons. Three British nationals were killed in the Gujarat riots, and a fourth who was injured is pursuing legal action over them. It seems unlikely justice will come soon. Britain is home to a large diaspora of Gujaratis, who may largely welcome the decision. And just possibly there would be a political gain for Britain’s ruling Conservative party, which has long been keen to woo voters of Indian heritage.

Most intriguing, however, is the timing of the decision. The dates of important state elections for Gujarat have just been announced (they will be held over two days in December), and Mr Modi has been eager not only to get re-elected but with a thumping victory, all the better to push his national ambitions. His strategy in part is to convince voters that his government has been efficient and that he has presided over exceptional increases in international investment, and thus prosperity in the state. When asked about the riots, as in a rare recent interview with The Economist (see here and here) he batted away the question and spoke about his popularity and gains to Gujaratis' lives. When asked about relations with the West, such as Britain, he in effect said that outsiders care most about investment and trade relations. "The maximum investment in my state is from the British. So we are very cordially working with countries all over the world," he added. For those who preferred to stay away from Gujarat, however, it was simply their loss.

The British decision is said to be in the British national interest, for the sake of commercial and consular gains. But it also obviously in Mr Modi’s interest. Coming shortly before the state poll, the clear indication is that old opprobrium is being wiped away. Britain could, of course, have waited until January and made this move once the state election was out of the way. That would have avoided inevitable suspicion from the Congress party, which rules in Delhi, that Britain is allowing Mr Modi to take direct electoral advantage. Mr Modi has already been issuing gleeful tweets. By deciding to act now, the British authorities seem to suggest that an unhappy Congress party is not a big problem.

Just possibly the timing has been driven by domestic British factors. Perhaps Conservative figures are keen to show that trade with India can grow fast, and Gujarat as a pro-business and relatively wealthy state is a natural place to focus on. And for all Mr Modi’s alleged sins (he denies them all, and points out that no court has convicted him of anything) Britain happily has close diplomatic and other relations with the leaders of China and Rwanda, for example, where human-rights records are much worse yet.

As likely, however, is the fact that Mr Modi has a decent chance of becoming India’s next prime minister. The most probable date of the next election is early 2014, but it could come much sooner, if coalition allies of the Congress-led government in Delhi decide to walk out. Mr Modi is the single-most popular candidate in the country to be the next leader, and within the national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) he is a likely PM candidate (even if many inside the party and beyond are still wary of him). Probably Britain, and many other countries, reckon it is better to restore regular contact with Mr Modi now, rather than next year when a general election campaign could suddenly be announced. As awkward as it looks now to be cosying up to Mr Modi just before a state election, it would look more craven yet to do so as a national one gets under way. The Economist (Picture credit: AFP)

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