Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

For Narendra Modi the Visit to Britain Is a Welcome Distraction from Problems at Home

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

For Narendra Modi the Visit to Britain Is a Welcome Distraction from Problems at Home

Article excerpt

It is often said that the longer they hold office, the more national leaders enjoy the distractions of occasional trips abroad. That so many assume this holds for Narendra Modi, who begins his first official visit to Britain this week, barely a year and a half after his stunning victory in national elections, gives a sense of how quickly his fortunes have ebbed.

India's prime minister, a polished showman and gifted communicator, will have meetings with David Cameron and lunch with the Queen, and will visit the former home of B R Ambedkar, a champion of India's lower castes, in Primrose Hill, north London. But as on recent trips to New York, San Francisco and Sydney, the main event will be a glitzy stadium show for members of India's diaspora, 60,000 of whom are set to pack into Wembley Stadium on Friday 13 November. Few world leaders can match Modi for these raw displays of soft power.

Even so, he arrives a diminished figure. Last week he suffered a heavy defeat in elections in Bihar, an eastern state with 105 million people, and one of the central political battlegrounds in India's Hindi-speaking heartland. Those same Biharis backed Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies last May, encouraged by promises to create jobs and end corruption, helping the BJP become the first party in a generation to win a majority in India's lower house of parliament. They were less charitable this time, handing victory to a hastily formed coalition of Modi rivals. The defeat was Modi's second in state polls in 2015, leaving him weaker politically than at any time since his climb to national prominence began more than five years ago.

When far from home, Modi quickly refinds the voice that won over his countrymen in 2014--a leader with a no-nonsense approach to economic development, but one who also seemed to have outgrown the worst extremes of his party's Hindu nationalist wing. He shows a softer side, too. A few months ago in Silicon Valley he swapped bear hugs with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and talked emotionally about his mother. Even without such theatrics, Modi remains popular among prosperous diasporan Indians, who will arrive at Wembley ready to cheer.

That this part of Modi's trip is all but guaranteed to go well will come as something of a relief in Britain, where the government has fretted that the pomp offered last month to China's president, Xi Jinping, would leave their latest guest feeling belittled. Cameron often says that rebuilding ties with India ranks as his foremost foreign policy priority. He has visited the country often, both as opposition leader and as prime minister. Modi was slow in reciprocating, leading many to spy an old grudge.

Modi's stature abroad makes his domestic predicament perplexing

Britain cut ties with Modi when he was accused of complicity in 2002's bloody anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the state that he ran as chief minister. …

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