What Boris Johnson wants from his trip to India - and what he's trying to escape (22 April 2022) https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/boris-johnson-in-india-what-does-the-embattled-uk-pm-hope-to-gain-from-the-visit
The Quint: Will Akshata Murty's tax U-turn save her husband's career?
I contribute a weekly column to the India-based Asiaville website, largely about events in the UK. If you scroll down you will find links to my columns in 2020 - those for 2021 (until the closure of the site) are immediately below:
A piece for BBC radio's 'From Our Own Correspondent' about the now derelict Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, a nationalist rallying point named after a British politician - first broadcast on 27 February 2020
[In the Pakistani city of Lahore, the 120-year-old hall where for decades nationalists staged protest rallies against British rule is slowly crumbling away. Local historians are campaigning to save the Bradlaugh [pron Brad-Law] Hall, not so much for its distinctly offbeat architecture but for its place in the region’s history. Andrew Whitehead recently managed to make his way in to the decaying building – and caught an echo of Lahore’s tempestuous past and at times troubled present:]
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, addressed rallies here – so too did the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru - and Bhagat Singh, a hero of India's independence movement, who in 1931 was hanged in the grounds of Lahore jail nearby.
The building is, I suppose you can say, imposing – more like a non-conformist tabernacle than a conventional public hall. The style is curious, mongrel even – a mix of solid colonial-era construction allied with rows of ornate, now largely rotted, wooden doors and window fittings with arched Saracenic-style surrounds.
In a city so replete with exquisite Mughal, Sikh and colonial architecture, the Bradlaugh Hall is – in terms of design - at best in the B-grade of Lahore’s public buildings.
Not that this excuses the dreadful dilapidation into which the hall has sunk. The structure seems sound – the floor, happily, is made of brick – but the roof consists largely of rusting corrugated iron, quite unable to keep the rain at bay.
The hall is supposedly sealed shut – but Faizan, an enthusiast for Lahore’s history, is not the sort of guy to be put off by a few padlocks. A sliver of land behind the hall is used as the local rubbish dump. And if you are willing to wade through a miasma of slush and worse, you come to a doorway with no door any more.
‘It’s been like this for the last fifteen years – neglected and empty’, Faizan lamented as he helped me secure a firm footing. And there you are, inside this barn of a building, communing with the ghosts of Pakistan’s and India’s nationalist past – two nations which were one before independence in 1947. There’s no power in the hall of course and in the semi-dark you can imagine the angry speeches railing against British rule – and the eager whoops and applause of the audience.
Yet this nationalist rallying place is named after a British politician: Charles Bradlaugh, a firebrand on the radical wing of Victorian Liberalism. As a campaigner, Bradlaugh championed republicanism, atheism, birth control, rights for Ireland … and justice for India. And unusually for an MP of that era, he took the trouble to visit India – addressing, in Bombay in 1889, the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress, the organisation which later led India to independence.
When a few years after Bradlaugh’s death, nationalists in Lahore started raising money to build a hall where they wouldn’t need to seek permission to hold meetings, they invoked the name of the MP sometimes described as the ‘Member for India’.
In the 1930s, another English activist who championed India’s cause – Freda Bedi, a Derby woman married to a Punjabi leftist – took her first nervous step as a political orator here addressing a student rally. The audience was not always kind to the speakers. She witnessed those found wanting drowned out by the rhythmic stamping of sticks and feet - and was desperate to avoid such a humiliation. ‘I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution’, she recalled years later, ‘and I suddenly began speaking in a very loud voice. And I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking woman bellowed into the microphone, must have been out of sheer fright’.
She survived – and made a name for herself as a white woman who took India’s side.
The day I paid homage at the hall there was a fierce storm and the clatter of rain on the roof sounded much like those feet stamping impatiently on the ground.
It’s the historical resonances which, campaigners believe, makes the Bradlaugh Hall so deserving of a bit of tender loving care. For many in Lahore, the fate of an old meeting place however venerated is hardly the most pressing of issues. The city, though much safer than a few years ago, is still under high security. Pakistan has an elected civilian government, but I heard many concerns about a stifling not simply of dissent but of reporting too.
It’s almost like martial law, one journalist told me. There’s talk of threats to high profile journalists and concern too about the self-censorship that’s said to be increasingly prevalent.
Yet these conversations were held on the margins of Lahore’s ThinkFest, a well-established festival of ideas and literature, in which leading political, academic and cultural figures make speeches to, and field questions from, large audiences, mainly young and keen to hold power to account.
That ability to speak out, to challenge, to argue, to persuade, was something that Charles Bradlaugh – an incessant debater - personified in his own political career. It would be nice to think that the hall that takes his name could find a renewed public purpose as a space where competing ideas and visions of the future can find expression.
A pipedream, you might say – but that’s what people once said about India’s independence movement.
Grubbing around in graveyards in Chennai delivered another piece for the BBC radio programme 'From Our Own Correspondent' - about the Edwardian-era poet Violet Nicolson, aka Laurence Hope (1 November 2018)
IN: Some of the most extraordinary sights in India are the old, overgrown colonial graveyards where generations of Britons who went out to serve the Empire were laid to rest. In one such burial ground in the southern city of Chennai – Madras, as it was once known - Andrew Whitehead came across the grave of a woman whose story throws an unusual light on the lives of the British in India:
St Mary’s is proud to proclaim itself the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. It stands inside a vast fort, built by the British three-hundred-and-seventy years ago to keep out marauders, among whom the most troublesome, as so often, were the French. In a remarkable thread of historical continuity, Fort St George remains the seat of government of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and its seventy million people. A couple of minutes stroll from St Mary’s and you’re at the chief minister’s office and the state assembly building.
The church still attracts a respectable Sunday congregation; its monuments and memorials delineate Britain’s early, stumbling, not always gentle, encounter with India. The surrounding graveyard quickly became full – the lifespan of Britons in India back then was short. St Mary’s was allocated an overspill burial ground on a desolate spot a couple of miles away called the Island.
It’s there still, sprawling, unkempt, a blasted elegy for Empire – a caretaker does his best to keep the dereliction at bay, but it’s a losing battle. Obelisks, crosses and funeral statuary peep out from the dense undergrowth. Stray dogs howl with anger when disturbed. No one goes there except –tell-tale signs suggest – to gamble, defecate, drink … and have sex.
At the far end of the grounds, just as you wonder whether you dare venture any further, there are two neat, well-tended, fenced-off plots of Commonwealth war graves. And close by, in a no man’s land between the manicured rows of war dead and the tangled mayhem all around, I came across a grave I was looking out for – a small, modest plaque in memory of General Malcolm Nicolson and his wife Adela Florence, who both died in what was then Madras in 1904.
She was one of the most popular poets of the Edwardian era – she wrote of love, longing, suffering and death; and above all of India, with which she had a profound affinity. She at first made out that her poems were translations from Indian languages – and she used a man’s name, Laurence Hope. Some verses of hers, set to music, you may know: ‘Pale hands I loved, Beside the Shalimar’. I remember my father singing those lines to himself. It includes a couplet, addressed to those pale hands:
I would rather have felt you round my throat Crushing out life; than waving me farewell!
The poem is called ‘Kashmiri Song’ – Kashmiris are often described as fair-skinned. There is an ambiguity, perhaps deliberate, about the gender and racial identity of narrator and lover. Some of her poems are deeply transgressive: addressing not just gender and race, but betrayal, harm and the erotic, in ways which we rarely associate with that apparently strait-laced era. Whether this was fantasy, exotic fable, or based in part on experience, we just don’t know.
The story of her death is disturbing. Her husband was much older; he needed a prostate operation; it went wrong; the Madras nursing home had run out of oxygen. A few weeks later, his widow – thirty-nine years old and with a four year-old son in the care of relatives in England – took her own life.
Gossip travels fast, and the word went out that this poet - so knowledgeable about Indian customs and lore – had committed sati … an ancient, and long-outlawed, custom of a wife taking her own life when her husband loses his.
Adela’s sister was also a writer – using the pen name Victoria Cross, she wrote racy novels; her most popular is said to have sold six-million copies. Set in India, it’s about a genteel young English woman who takes her Indian servant as her lover and won’t give him up even when she gets engaged to an eligible, English, colonial administrator. Her lover dies, but she discovers she is expecting his child. She marries her English fiancé and they move away; when the baby is born, she realises that her husband can never abide this living reminder of her Indian lover, so … she suffocates the child.
It’s fiction of course. But it does make you pause. The novel violates so much of what's expected of a refined English woman in India at this time. You wonder whose anxieties are being expressed in this tangled storyline - and what its emphatic commercial success says about its readership: that they liked to be shocked and appalled, or in some vicarious manner wanted to share in the thrill, and agony, of a woman who breaks the rules.
The writings of both sisters challenge some of the conventional assumptions about Empire - about the attitudes and experiences of those Britons who made their lives in India. Colonial graveyards such as St Mary’s are often among the most potent epitaphs of an enterprise which by-and-large history does not judge kindly. But delve deeper beneath that dense mat of vegetation, and it’s extraordinary what you can find.
From Our Own Correspondent: Korean expats in Chennai
A piece for BBC radio's From Our Own Correspondent on what's now the largest ex-pat community in Chennai (20 October 2018)
Andrew Whitehead [a former BBC India correspondent] spends time every year in Chennai, the port city once known as Madras. Recently he came across a newly-established community which now describes itself as the most numerous expatriate group in this corner of South India:
Sriperumbudur is not the sort of spot you expect to be served kimchi, a Korean dish of fermented cabbage which is a world away from the Tamil staples of dosas and iddlis. It’s a sleepy, non-descript town where cows and goats mosey among the vegetable stalls. If the rest of India has heard of the place, it’s because Sriperumbudur is where Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former prime minister, was blown-up by a woman suicide bomber. An impressive memorial park, whose main feature is an unsettling mural depicting the moment the explosives detonated, attracts a steady stream of visitors.
The town is an hour out of Chennai on the main road to Bengaluru - Madras and Bangalore, as South India’s principal cities were still known when Rajiv Gandhi made his ill-fated campaign stop. Not many visitors to his memorial bother to come in to the town centre. Perhaps they should. Slightly hidden on a driveway off Gandhi Road is an elegant, newly-built hotel. “Can I have lunch here?” - I asked the receptionist. “Sorry”, he replied. “But you have a restaurant – isn’t it open?” “Yes, it’s open - but, you see, we only serve Korean food”.
Having reassured him that that would do just fine, I was shown into a small, functional eating room. Most of the tables were taken by clusters of blue-shirted young and middle aged men, interspersed – this was a Saturday – with a few family groups. A Korean TV channel was playing. As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Korean there. I wasn’t familiar with the cuisine but the waitress - Korean of course –patiently guided me through the menu and I ate splendidly.
The Kyung Joo hotel – Hotel Crystal Towers according to its English language signboard – has been open for seven years. Ninety per cent of its customers are Korean. Most work at or have links with the massive Hyundai car plant on the outskirts of town. This opened in 1999, eight years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; the South Korea-based multinational is now India’s second biggest car maker. One-in-six of all new cars sold in India are made here. Buoyed by Hyundai’s success, Samsung and many other Korean businesses have set up shop in South India.
The Korean presence is discreet. But travel along the national highway, you can spot shops with signs in distinctive Korean characters. In Chennai, the South Korean consulate takes up an entire floor in a high-rise office block in one of the smarter parts of the city. The consul-general says there are now five-thousand Koreans and three-hundred Korean firms in and around Chennai – the largest ex-patriate community in the area. From my city centre flat, a Korean restaurant, Korean hotel, Korean bakery and Korean café and gift shop are all within walking distance.
At first, I suspect, the Koreans coming to work here for a year or two counted down the days until their return home. There’s still not a lot of mingling between Koreans and local Madrasis, but a centre has been established - with support from South Korea-based business houses - to encourage dialogue between the cultures. You can take lessons in the Korean language, join a Korean dance troupe – and if you are Korean, there are courses in Tamil cuisine and Indian spirituality as well as treks and fishing outings.
Once, the port of Madras was an important trading post with links to South-East and East Asia. Between the world wars, the sea lanes east across the Bay of Bengal were among the world’s busiest migration routes. If you look hard, you can still find an imprint of that – in Chennai’s ‘Burma’ market, in the small Chinese community, particularly prominent among the city’s private dentists. The Korean presence is, in a way, a rekindling of those pan-Asian ties.
But things aren’t always as they seem. Having decided I quite like Korean food, I called in on my local restaurant – take it from me, the soft-shell crab is wonderful. The Korean proprietor told me she’d been based in Chennai for eleven years – though she’s picked up little Tamil or indeed English.
I asked the waiting staff how long they had been in India. They smiled awkwardly. They weren’t Korean at all, but from the remoter corners of India’s north-east –Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland - where many people look more East Asian than South Asian. And the kitchen staff – are they also from the north east, I asked? Oh no – not at all, I was told; they’re from Nepal.
Korean food, cooked by Nepalis, and served by north-easterners, in south India. How’s that for cultural crossover?
Asia Dialogue blog: Is Kashmir facing a new crisis?
The state government in Indian Kashmir falls - the glimmer of hope for a political initiative disappears - and Kashmir's best known and regarded journalist is killed: my assessment on the University of Nottingham Asia blog (2 July 2018) theasiadialogue.com/2018/07/02/kashmir-faces-new-crisis/
From Our Own Correspondent: Tamil film stars venture back into politics
It seemed as if the era of film stars dominating politics in Tamil Nadu was over - but now Rajinikanth is planning to launch his own political party (14 April 2018) The audio is here, the scripted is posted below:
CUE: To South India, where not one but two Tamil-language film stars are turning to politics – aiming to transform their huge fan base into support at the ballot box. And this in a region where more often than not in recent decades, the top political job has been taken by someone who has gained fame in the movie industry. Andrew Whitehead in Chennai has been watching the drama unfold:
Rajinikanth is at first glance an unlikely celebrity. He’s in his late sixties, bald, with a greying beard, round glasses – and the appearance more of a sage than a superstar. But in this film besotted corner of India, he’s about as big as you get: in terms of fame – and popularity - he outranks politicians, cricketers, singers, religious leaders, the lot.
His new movie is called ‘Kaala’ - black. It is, by some counts, his 155th film. There have been a few flops along the way. But this seems set to do well. A video teaser released on social media was – say the promoters - viewed 12 million times in the first 24 hours. ‘Kaala’ is in Tamil, the first language of some seventy million South Indians. You will have heard of Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi language film industry -South India has Kollywood.
In this gangster movie Rajinikanth, sporting a full head of hair and dark glasses, is the ‘don’, the criminal mastermind. The film is being trawled for any sign of a political message. ‘Kaala’, black, the colour of the Dravidian movement, the assertion of Tamil pride and social equality which has reshaped politics here. Black, some critics have mused, because it’s a reminder of Rajinikanth’s dark complexion, his humble background, his association with the masses.
All this matters because Rajinikanth has declared that he intends to enter politics – indeed, to set up his own party. This has the potential to turn Tamil politics upside down. Not least because the film industry has made more political impact in Tamil-speaking South India than anywhere else in the world. For 43 of the last 50 years, the state’s chief minister has either been a movie star or someone closely associated with the film industry.
M. Karunanidhi, an acclaimed Tamil screen writer, spent twenty years as chief minister.His rival - the biggest Tamil film star of them all, M.G. Ramachandran - established a breakaway party and was in power for a decade. MGR’s old home is now a museum, complete with his now stuffed pet lion, Raja. His tomb, adorned with a twelve foot high bronze statue of Pegasus, looms over Chennai’s Marina beach. Thousands visit every day, some putting their ear to the marble slab to test the tale that you can still hear the tick of his Rolex watch.
MGR’s political successor was his leading lady and sometimes co-star: Jayalalithaa, a shrewd and effective politician who dominated the Tamil political scene for a quarter-of-a-century. She died in December 2016 – and now lies alongside her mentor. That appeared to bring down the curtain on the era of film star chief ministers. But since then, there has been a power vacuum, an absence of commanding political personalities.
So is the stage set for another movie star at the helm? Opinion is sharply divided. Rajinikanthhas left it rather late in life to venture into politics. No one’s yet sure quite what he stands for – beyond an assertion of the need for a more spiritual side to public life. And while his vast network of fan clubs will provide quite a launch pad, those with political ambitions here need very deep pockets. Vote buying has become a well organised industry here. Voters expect lavish food and drink and pay offs often amounting to thousands of rupees before they pledge their support.
Rajinikanth faces another hurdle too. He’s not the only Tamil film star who is turning to politics. Kamal Haasan, also in his sixties and seen as a touch more sophisticated as an actor, has just launched his own party, [the Centre for People’s Justice]. In his breakthrough movie, back in 1975, Haasan played a young rebel who falls head-over-heels in love with an older woman. Also in the cast …Rajinikanth making his screen debut. Their careers have been closely entwined. But as Kamal Haasan recently acknowledged: they have been competitors - and their rival political ambitions are bound to sharpen that divide. [Though both seem to be hedging their bets – they are said to be still considering new film roles.]
There’s no room for two ageing thespians at the apex of Tamil politics. They could make common cause – though it’s difficult to see either ceding the leading role to the other. So, really, for one to thrive, the other has to fail. What a story we may have of deals and demagoguery, of backstabbing and betrayal. It has all the makings of a marvellous Tamil movie.
BBC: The Tibetan Muslims who have gone home to Kashmir
BBC News: 'Return to Kashmir, where our parents were shot'
A visit back to Baramulla with two sons of the young British couple who were among those killed there seventy years ago. (16 November 2017) - more than 1.2 million views http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-41996612
If you are curious to read what I wrote for the Mirror, I am posting the article as submitted:
Seven decades ago exactly, as the stroke of midnight ushered in August 15th 1947, India and Pakistan gained their independence - but at a terrible price. The breaking up of British India into two independent nations, Hindu majority India and mainly Muslim Pakistan, provoked one of the most terrible catastrophes of a turbulent century.
About a million people - no one knows the number for sure - were slaughtered as Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other embarked on a fury of communal violence. Twelve million people became refugees, many traipsing across the new international borders in seeming endless columns of the near destitute.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
A radical Labour government was elected in Britain at the close of the Second World War determined to grant independence to our biggest colony, India. The dashing Louis Mountbatten - uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh and distant relative of the Queen - was given the role of the last Viceroy of India. His task: to organise an orderly British exit and a seamless transfer of power.
Mountbatten was a naval officer and during the war had served as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia. As befits a military man, he wanted the job done quickly. He was a man in a hurry - and India paid the price.
India's main political leaders, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, couldn't agree on what should follow British imperial rule. The founding father of Pakistan, Jinnah, argued that British India's Muslim minority - about a quarter of the total population - were a nation in their own right. Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, reluctantly acquiesced in the dividing of the country.
That meant dissecting two of India's biggest provinces, Punjab and Bengal. A task that should have taken months, perhaps years, was completed in five weeks by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India before. And who never came back.
He had to carve up India based on unreliable census returns and out-of-date maps. The news about where the new boundary would run was announced only on August 17th, two days after independence. Tens of millions of people celebrated the end of British rule not knowing which new nation they were part of.
Clashes between different religious communities intensified in the run-up to independence. It wasn't simply spontaneous mob violence. Local politicians and gang leaders were involved - the excited political rhetoric heightened emotions - and in the aftermath of a world war in which millions of Indians fought, there were a lot of men around with military training and army issue weapons.
The violence spiralled out of control. Trainloads of refugees were massacred. Tens of thousands of women were abducted and raped - and their either killed or married off. Each mass slaughter prompted demands for revenge, and neither the politicians nor the police were able to stop the frenzy. The steps taken to enforce law and order and deal with large numbers of refugees proved to be utterly inadequate. It was an inglorious end to Imperial rule in India.
In Punjab in particular, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived together peaceably for generations. No one expected a forced mass migration. But by the close of 1947 almost all Hindus and Sikhs in west Punjab had fled east, often encountering long processions of Muslim refugees heading in the opposite direction.
It was one of the biggest population movements of the modern world and a grim start to nationhood. But within weeks, events took a turn for the worse.
The British had pulled out of the 'jewel in the crown' of Empire without a final decision on who should rule the mountain kingdom of Kashmir. The maharajah was a Hindu. Most of his citizens were Muslims. Both India and Pakistan claimed the princely state.
By the end of October 1947, India and Pakistan were fighting over Kashmir. In all, these two nations - now both nuclear powers - have fought four wars in the past seventy years. Three of them have been in or about Kashmir. The conflict remains unresolved. Many Kashmiris would prefer independence.
India and Pakistan have a great deal of shared history in common. They both have a passion for cricket. If you speak Hindi, India's main language, then you will understand Urdu, Pakistan's official language. India's Bollywood movies are big in Pakistan; Pakistani TV soaps are avidly watched in India.
But the two nations have never become friends. There are no direct flights between the two capitals; no big regional news organisation has a reporter in the 'other' capital; India has more trade with Belgium than with its neighbour to the west.
The territory that was allocated to the new Muslim nation in 1947 amounted to, in Jinnah's famous words, a 'moth-eaten Pakistan'. Two wings divided by a thousand miles of Indian territory. In 1971, with the support of the Indian army, East Pakistan broke away to become the independent nation of Bangladesh. For many in Pakistan, it felt like a second partition.
The intense rivalry with India has destabilised Pakistan's democracy. The army is by far the most powerful institution. And radical Islam has been able to use the war cry of saving Muslim Kashmir from Hindu India to win recruits and money.
On the other side of the Partition line, India has developed into a major world power, with a robust if flawed democracy and a booming economy. Muslims make up just one-in-six of India's population, but soon - it's forecast - India will be home to more Muslims than anywhere else. Pakistan was founded as a nation for Muslims - India is destined to be the biggest Muslim nation in the world.
Britain's imperial history in South Asia explains the large number of migrants who came to find work or get an education here. There are almost one-and-half million people of Indian descent in Britain - and slight more whose forbears came from Pakistan or Bangladesh.
The tensions between different religious groups which flared up so tragically seventy years ago have inevitably had an impact on the outlook of migrants in Britain. But as British Asians of all communities reflect on the immense tragedy that accompanied independence, they do so more in sadness than in anger. [ENDS]
BBC News website: 'Why Indians abroad succumb to Modi mania'
In the week that Narendra Modi is expected to address a rally of 60,000 Indians at Wembley stadium in London, a look at why the diaspora are so enthused by India's Hindu nationalist prime minister (10 November 2015) - 190,000 page views http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-34709354
BBC News website: 'Subhas Chandra Bose: looking for India's "lost" leader'
As Narendra Modi meets the extended family of 'Netaji' Subhas Chandra Bose, why India's independence-era heroes still stir-up such powerful emotions and political impact (13 October 2015) - 160,000 page views http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-34473241
Rising Kashmir: 'The Crown Princes of Kashmir'
An opinion piece about the persistence of political dynasties in Kashmir (28 September 2015)
The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India by Lance Price Hodder, 342 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 1 4736 1089 7
2014: The Election that Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai Penguin, 372 pp, £16.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 342498 7
Jashodaben was married at 17; her husband was a year or two older. It was an arranged match. They were both from the same underprivileged Hindu caste in Gujarat; they separated after three years or so. ‘We parted on good terms as there were never any fights between us,’ Jashodaben told a reporter last year. ‘In three years, we may have been together for all of three months. There has been no communication from his end to this day.’ Jashodaben, now in her sixties, is a retired teacher who lives with her brothers in the town of Unjha in Gujarat and spends much of her time praying. She never remarried and didn’t feel she was free to do so. After all, she declared in a recent affidavit, ‘I am the wife of the prime minister of India.’
Narendra Modi tried hard to conceal her existence. When he fought elections, he always left blank the column about marital status in the nomination papers. But as an aspiring prime minister in last year’s general election he could no longer get away with it. Rajdeep Sardesai, a TV anchor who has written a book about the election, says the fact that Modi, who became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, had ‘a wife tucked away in the village’ was one of the worst kept secrets in Gujarat politics – but even so, most Gujaratis, and certainly most Indians, didn’t know about it. When Sardesai wanted to find the missing wife a few years ago he was warned off: Modi, he was told, ‘is very sensitive about it’.
After her husband’s election victory, Mrs Modi was given a security detail. She filed a request under India’s freedom of information legislation to try to find out who authorised it and why. ‘I am surrounded by five security guards all the time,’ she told a reporter from Reuters. ‘Often my relatives or I have to cook for them, my sister-in-law has to make their beds. This is a bit annoying … It gets really chaotic when I have to travel, because I use public transport and the guards are following me in an air-conditioned car.’ Though she seemed unimpressed by the sole privilege she’d been awarded as her country’s first lady, Indian newspapers reported that she was willing to return to her husband’s side, if he asked. In May, unhappy that she hadn’t received a satisfactory answer and upset by the use of her maiden name in the official response, she submitted a second request. By this time, the media’s interest in her had largely faded, but the revelation had made clear how little India knew about its prospective leader and how different his background was from that of most of the country’s political elite.
Jashodaben’s name doesn’t appear in the index of Lance Price’s account of Modi’s rise to power. Her story is recounted briefly, along with Modi’s usual response: ‘Modi refuses to discuss the marriage.’ Price’s book is part of a rebranding exercise: it’s not a partisan account, but it is a result of the desire of Modi and the team around him to be, as they would see it, better understood. One of Modi’s London-based associates arranged access for Price, a former BBC political correspondent who worked as deputy communications director for Tony Blair. Modi usually keeps his distance from the media and particularly from organisations or individuals seen as liberal-inclined and unsympathetic, but eight weeks after his swearing-in, Price was ushered into Race Course Road for the first of four hour-long interviews. Nothing was off-limits, no copy approval was sought: it was a calculated risk to give a left-of-centre political writer so much access to the most right-wing prime minister in India’s history.
The risk paid off. Price’s account is respectful rather than admiring, but it contains none of the censure Modi often attracts. Price praises his determination and ‘indomitable will’. Of all the heads of government he has rubbed shoulders with, Price says that Modi is ‘without doubt the most intriguing and the hardest to fathom’. But the access he was given is more remarkable than anything he was told: the bulk of the book is an account of Modi’s ‘superbly fought and extraordinarily successful’ election campaign – though Price wasn’t in India at the time and doesn’t pretend to expertise in Indian politics. For a sense of place and occasion you need Sardesai’s effervescent account.
The damage to Modi’s reputation dates back more than a decade. In 2002, within five months of his becoming chief minister of Gujarat, rioting between Hindus and Muslims left more than a thousand dead. The trigger was an attack on an express train carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims back from a ceremony in Ayodhya, where ten years earlier the pulling down of a mosque, said to have been built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram, had led to the worst communal violence in India since Partition. The facts, as so often, are disputed, but it seems that a large crowd threw stones at the train, four carriages were set on fire, and 59 people, 12 of them children, burned to death. Over the next three days, hundreds of Muslims were killed, and, initially at least, the police and civil authorities appeared unwilling or unable to respond. Modi compounded his inability to prevent the rioting with his reluctance to express remorse, though he did offer his resignation at a meeting of the national executive of his party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It wasn’t accepted. Two years later, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP prime minister at the head of a coalition government, suffered a surprise election defeat, he lamented that not removing Modi had been a mistake: Modi had tarnished both the party and the government.
Modi says that his role in the riots has been investigated fully and repeatedly, and that he has never been charged with any offence. That’s true, though some of his political colleagues have been charged and convicted. The US and the UK were sufficiently concerned to place Modi in diplomatic quarantine, withholding visas and ambassadorial meetings, until he became too big a political figure to shun.
Sardesai reported on the 2002 riots and conducted an interview with Modi at the time. He ‘came out … almost convinced that the chief minister was intent on ending the cycle of violence’. Less than an hour after he’d finished filming the interview, though, his team was stopped at a roadblock set up by Hindu vigilantes who were brandishing swords and axes, ‘drunk on the power they had over us’. They demanded that the broadcasters pull down their trousers. Sardesai had been circumcised at birth, which would have been enough to seal his fate. But he and his team escaped what he describes as a ‘near-death experience’ by invoking Modi’s name and showing their attackers a clip from the interview.
As the grandson of a senior police officer in Gujarat, Sardesai knows what he’s talking about when he asserts that ‘no major riot takes place in this country without the government of the day being either incompetent or complicit, or both.’ He thinks Modi was incompetent: at this early stage of his career as chief minister he was unable to restrain more febrile elements within the Hindu nationalist alliance. But Sardesai still wonders whether Modi ‘wilfully allowed the riots to simmer’. As Modi became more prominent nationally, he was repeatedly questioned about the riots; he never found a satisfactory way of addressing the issue. In one TV interview, he pulled off his lapel microphone and walked out. On another occasion, he compared the way he felt to the pain he would suffer if a puppy fell under the wheels of his car. Now he won’t talk about it at all: ‘I have said enough,’ he told Price, ‘and you can read the reports and the Supreme Court judgment for yourself.’
In order to win power, Modi had to neutralise his reputation for religious extremism, letting the 2002 riots ‘fade into history’, as Price puts it, while focusing instead on his reputation for economic competence. It worked, and Price’s view, which is more favourable than Sardesai’s and many others’, is that Modi should be judged on what he has achieved in office, not on past events. As chief minister in Gujarat, Modi established a reputation for efficient, pro-business leadership and higher than average growth and development. He won three successive elections in his home state, a rare achievement in a country where the ‘anti-incumbency factor’ has become a cliché of psephological analysis. Critics have argued that Gujarat’s economic success has been overstated, but Modi’s reputation remains high, especially with big business, which had grown frustrated with the in-ability of the outgoing Congress-led national government to see liberalisation through. Industrialists who had initially seen Modi as a divisive figure were won over, and bankrolled his general election victory.
Whatever his economic successes, without the loyalty of the millions that the Hindu nationalist movement can mobilise, he would never have won the election. As he made the move from periphery to centre, he managed to continue to appeal to the party faithful while advocating modernisation. ‘If Narendra Modi were to jettison completely the Hindu nationalist ideology that he grew up with then he wouldn’t last very long,’ Price argues. ‘He won’t do that and, so far as I can tell, he has no desire to. But if he allows the more extreme elements … to influence the way he governs to any significant degree then he risks alienating those at home and abroad who want to believe that his commitment to create a modern, successful and outward-looking India reflects the real Modi.’
The trail to the ‘real’ Modi leads back to his marriage and the way he left it. He told his wife that he wanted to travel across India, and spent two years or so visiting ashrams and pilgrimage sites. At about this time, he became a ‘pracharak’ – a preacher or proselytiser for the Hindu nationalist movement, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Most pracharaks are vegetarian, teetotal and celibate – which may explain why, when news of his wife got out, Modi’s family insisted that the marriage had not been consummated.
The RSS is an immensely influential yet publicity-shy organisation. It is at the apex of a loose confederation of Hindu nationalist organisations, of which the BJP is the political wing. Most of the senior figures in the BJP have close links with the RSS, and many of their policy and personnel decisions are guided by it. ‘The RSS may not be the BJP’s daily remote control, as its critics suggest,’ Sardesai writes, ‘but neither is it some voluntary organisation solely devoted to social welfare. It is, at the end of the day, the final word within the saffron “family”.’ At the heart of Hindutva is the belief that India’s Hindus – a billion of them, constituting four-fifths of the population – are burdened by the weight of centuries of Muslim and colonial rule, and by a secular tradition in public life that is too indulgent to religious minorities and insufficiently respectful of Hindu values.
RSS full-timers are sometimes deputed to the BJP, but they don’t usually make it to the top. Modi is the first pracharak to get as far as state chief minister, never mind prime minister. The role of pracharak requires discipline, service and renunciation, but Modi also possesses more worldly qualities. As you might expect from a veteran of Blair’s Downing Street, Price is best when describing the branding and positioning, the advertising and social media campaigns, the creation of the ‘Modi wave’ that swept the pracharak to victory. Modi positioned himself as an outsider, a member of a low caste, from a small town, who’d never been an MP or national minister – and Congress made mistakes that allowed him to trade on this image. Because Modi, as a child, had helped out on his father’s tea stall, the Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar joked on TV that while Modi would never be prime minister he could always sell tea. So the BJP presented Modi as a ‘chai wallah’, up against the shehzada (‘prince’) Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers. The snobbery of the South Delhi elite played to Modi’s advantage in a democracy where the disadvantaged know their political strength.
Just about every aspect of Modi’s campaign was carefully managed. An exceptional speaker in Gujarati and Hindi, he understood the importance of TV coverage of his campaign, and the BJP provided a live feed of his speeches. He used a 3D hologram to reach those who couldn’t get to his rallies – not simply as an election tool, but as an exemplar of the digital India he spoke of so often. It cost a fortune, but by the end of the campaign Modi had addressed more than seven million voters by hologram. He built a presence on social media well ahead of the election, and had a team of digital bandits who trolled his rivals. By the end of the campaign he had four million followers on Twitter; an account in Rahul Gandhi’s name had 56,000. On the ground, the BJP network stretched to every polling area, with the RSS providing much of the manpower. NaMo, as he was often called (his hapless Congress opponent was RaGa), won in what the Indian media described as a ‘tsunamo’.
‘It’s great to be talking to someone who just got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,’ David Cameron told Modi. The BJP took 31 per cent of 550 million votes – barely above the Miliband mark – but the first-past-the-post system Britain bequeathed to India, combined with the strength of regional parties in the east and south, transformed this into a decisive victory. The BJP won 282 seats; Congress was reduced to 44 MPs, not even enough to be the formal opposition. Among first-time voters, the BJP’s margin was particularly emphatic, and it won in every social group apart from Muslims and Christians.
According to the Pew Research Centre, by 2050 India will have surpassed Indonesia as the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Yet the Muslim influence in politics is diminishing. The BJP used to manage to rustle up a handful of Muslim MPs for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Not this time. Last year’s election returned only 23 Muslim MPs, just 4 per cent of the Lok Sabha – though Muslims make up at least 14 per cent of the population.
The lurking concern is that a majoritarian political culture is emerging which could damage India’s greatest achievement of the past seventy years, the bedding down of a robust and secular participatory democracy. By all the standard benchmarks, India’s democracy is, as the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney puts it, an ‘improbable success’. In Battles Half Won (2013), he argues that a country’s survival as a democracy is mostly down to income levels and that India stands almost alone as a poor country that has had democracy based on the universal franchise ever since the first post-independence election (with the striking exception of the 19 months of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency). Democracy is now the ‘institutionalised common sense of Indian politics’. For all the barbs about Modi being a demagogue, his election is a landmark: it’s the first time any party other than Congress has secured more than half the seats in the Lok Sabha. This shows a democracy maturing rather than unwinding.
As yet, Modi has not acted on any of the standard BJP/RSS demands – building a temple on the disputed site at Ayodhya, abolishing Muslim family law, removing the special status given in the constitution to Muslim-majority Kashmir – any of which may inflame communal tensions. Others have been less careful: emboldened by his victory, some who regard themselves as his supporters have tried to organise voluntary mass ‘reconversions’ to Hinduism, using the phrase ghar wapsi, or ‘homecoming’, which reflects the Hindutva belief that all Indians are Hindus, even if some have strayed; they have complained loudly about a ‘love jihad’ (Muslim men marrying and converting Hindu women); and they have committed sporadic acts of violence and vandalism, which have put the small Christian community on edge. It feels too soon to endorse Price’s verdict that ‘there has been no evidence’ since Modi became prime minister of his religious beliefs having ‘any impact on policy that is remotely comparable … to the damaging influence of fundamental Christianity on the administration of President George W. Bush’. The truth is that on social issues, Modi has managed to be both a moderniser and a religious conservative. He used his first independence day speech to address India’s shaming record on sexual violence, urging parents to take as much responsibility for their sons’ behaviour as for their daughters’. He later made the bizarre claim that Hindu holy texts demonstrate that ancient India developed expertise in human genetics and plastic surgery.
After a year in office, Modi seems comfortable and secure in power. He has established a firm grip on his party, shunting aside the old guard, including his mentor and protector, L.K. Advani, the hardline party patriarch who even in his eighties believed he should be the prime ministerial candidate. But there are challenges. At first, the BJP claimed a series of impressive state election victories; but earlier this year, an upstart, anti-corruption party won local elections in Delhi – once a BJP citadel – in an even more emphatic manner. This will have reminded Modi that much of his support is pragmatic rather than ideological, and that it will ebb away if campaign promises aren’t met.
At home, Modi confronts the difficulty of reconciling his pro-business policies with his campaign promises to instal toilets in every home, clean up the Ganges and build tens of millions of houses. So far, at least, there’s no sign of the additional taxes and spending required for this accelerated social development. A political row over a proposed law that would make it easier (and cheaper) for businesses to buy agricultural land for industrial use has revealed how tricky it is to reward those who financed his election victory while maintaining his broad appeal.
Once, Modi’s international standing was his weak point. Now it’s his biggest success. He must be the only head of government to top the bill at Madison Square Garden, where he evangelised to the already devoted Indian diaspora. A clutch of US Congress members lined up to pay court. Of course, the world wants access to Indian markets, and the West wants a democratic counterpoint in Asia to China’s growing might. But it’s still a turnaround. It was only last year that the US ambassador to India met with Modi, signalling the end of his diplomatic isolation. Since the election, Obama has hosted Modi and visited him, and endorsed his inclusion as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Leaders’. ‘Like India,’ Obama claimed, ‘he transcends the ancient and the modern – a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a “digital India”.’
There is still much of the pracharak about him: his modest lifestyle, intense discipline and unsettling certainty of purpose. When he announced from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort that he was willing to work 15 hours a day in the nation’s service, it rang true. He has no immediate family in Delhi, no enthusiasms or outside interests, no apparent desire for relaxation. It’s difficult to pin down what drives him, but reasonable to assume that he is still working for the RSS as much as fir the nation. [ENDS]
Jeremy Corbyn has been whipping up the sort of fervour that gives him the aura of a latter-day Godman. In a British (or more strictly English) political landscape largely devoid of excitement, he is generating levels of enthusiasm way beyond anything seen in the UK's general election earlier this year.
The Labour party MP recently addressed a rally in central London. The main hall was fully booked well in advance. Two overflow rooms were filled to capacity. So Corbyn resorted to climbing on top of a fire engine to address the hundreds milling around on the street, unable to get inside.
It's not the fiery oratory that's attracting the crowds - Corbyn's a staid, low-key speaker. He's not a political rock star - he's 66, bearded, vegetarian, teetotal, with a dress sense that hasn't changed for decades. There's no new message - Corbyn's hard left political views have barely shifted since he was elected to the British Parliament in 1983.
He's about as far to the left as it is possible to be as a Labour MP: anti-war, anti-austerity, anti-nuclear, and a supporter of such unfashionable causes as higher taxes, renationalisation of key industries and greater powers for trades unions.
And if the bookmakers are to be believed, he's on course to be the party's new leader.
The comprehensive Conservative party victory in May's election led to despair in the ranks of the opposition Labour party. They hadn't seen the result coming. Within hours, Ed Miliband resigned as party leader. A gaggle of contenders to succeed him argued that Labour needed to learn the lesson of its defeat - it had to win the trust of middle England, develop more business-friendly policies and edge towards the centre ground. But the groundswell of support for Corbyn suggests that party members are heading in the other direction and determined to push Labour further to the left.
When Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to stand for the party leadership, he was seen as a 100-1 outsider. He was well short of the number of Labour MPs required to endorse his nomination, and is now a candidate only because he persuaded colleagues who didn't support him to sign his papers.
If Labour MPs alone elected the party leader, Corbyn wouldn't have the ghost of a chance. He's likeable and hardworking - but a serial rebel against the party line and leadership.
But the ballot extends to all party members, and to registered party supporters - and it costs just £3 (Rs 300) to register. Tens of thousands have been signing up. A few are supporters of other parties who want to make mischief. Most are genuinely enthused by the prospect of an old-style socialist leading the Labour party.
There are similar stirrings in the US. Senator Bernie Sanders - in his seventies, also an avowed socialist and even more of a maverick than Corbyn - has got more traction than expected for his campaign for the Democratic party's presidential nomination. He too has won support mainly from the young, many of whom see the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, as too much part of the system to be able to challenge and transform it.
Across the English-speaking world, a decade of hardship and economic recession has failed to produce the sort of progressive, left-wing political tide often evident in troubled times. The Occupy movement, which promised so much, has delivered little enduring political legacy. A financial crisis for which the bankers and big business are widely seen as being to blame has led not to greater emphasis on social justice, but an ever more glaring inequality.
In a few countries profoundly affected by economic collapse - think of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain - new left-wing forces have emerged. In Britain and the United States, it's the old-time leftists, Corbyn and Sanders, who have been beneficiaries of a soul-searching within social democratic parties which feel as if they have lost their way. The hard-line socialists, with their unchanging message and evident sincerity, offer hope - a commodity in short supply in progressive politics.
Sanders won't gain his party's nomination; Corbyn could well win his party's leadership, though the race has some way to run - we'll get the result in mid-September. As yet, the chorus of voices - within Labour and beyond - insisting that a party led by such a committed left-winger will be unelectable appears not have eroded his support.
Tony Blair, the former prime minister, mocked those Labour party members whose hearts were with Corbyn; his message to them. "get a transplant!" Blair is by far the most electorally successful leader Labour has ever had - but his stock is now so low within the party, any barbs he delivers boomerang to the benefit of those he's criticising.
Some of Corbyn's rivals - there are three other candidates, none of whom have impressed - have already said that if he wins, they won't serve as a shadow minister. There have been mutterings that Labour might split. That's unlikely. The party's last big split in the early 1980s saw a swathe of right-wing MPs form the Social Democratic Party, which won a series of by-election victories but quickly faded. Left-wing breakaways have been of still less significance.
Corbyn's supporters contend that the danger is not schism, but a Labour party that fades into irrelevance because it has lost its radical vision. They argue that new forces such as environmentalism and Scottish nationalism have managed to engage with young idealists, and Labour also needs to have a clear, principled political message.
Yet when the established market-based economic system is facing such profound difficulties, when the big corporations and the banks are so distrusted and when the digital revolution demands new ways of working and thinking, it is troubling that radicalism's most vibrant manifestation is a reworking of a tired ideology and style of politics. New times require new thinking - and there's not much sign of that on the left.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and also reported for the BBC on British politics.
“This is the sweetest victory of all”, David Cameron told party workers on May 8 morning. More because it was so unexpected. “I never quite believed we would get to the end of this campaign in the place we are now,” he said at the party headquarters. The euphoria is understandable. Mr. Cameron has led the Conservatives to probably the biggest surprise win in a British general election for 70 years.
The opinion polls throughout the campaign put Conservatives and Labour so close that everyone was convinced that Britain was heading for another hung Parliament. The Conservatives’ overall majority is wafer thin. All the same, Mr. Cameron was able to call on the Queen to tell her that he will form a Conservative majority government — he no longer needs a coalition partner.
The Conservatives ended up with a 6 per cent lead in the national vote over Labour. With a first-past-the-post electoral system, it has given the Conservatives about a 100 more MPs than their Labour opponents. Although if all the other parties joined forces against them, the Conservatives would have a narrow majority in the House of Commons of about 10 seats.
Referendum on EU issue It is difficult to be sure why, at the last minute, one million or more voters who were thinking of supporting Labour changed their minds. But the Conservatives’ negative campaigning — that Britain’s economic recovery would be in jeopardy under Labour and that party leader Ed Miliband was too Leftwing to be trusted — seems to have worked.
Mr. Cameron will now have to deliver on his pledge to hold a referendum on whether Britain leaves the European Union. He has promised to hold that vote by the end of 2017 and hopes to negotiate changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU, which will allow him to argue that Britain should stay in. Business certainly wants the U.K. to remain part of Europe. But there is a distinct possibility that Britain will no longer be part of the EU by the time the next general election is held.
The Prime Minister will also preside over further sharp cuts in government spending as he seeks to bring down the country’s stubbornly large budget deficit. It’s not clear where the axe will fall, but welfare benefits will certainly be targeted. Mr. Cameron’s former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have been the most emphatic losers at this election — from more than 50 MPs to fewer than 10. Nick Clegg, the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, was one of the handful of Lib Dems to win re-election, but has made clear that he is standing down as party leader.
The Labour opposition, brushing itself down from its worst election result for a generation, will also now face a leadership election — Mr. Miliband announced his resignation within hours of the scale of the defeat becoming clear. He said this was to allow “a full and open debate” about the party’s future. A bruising battle is already taking shape. “You can’t win from the Left in Britain,” said one Labour insider who was critical of Mr. Miliband — and many in the party believe that Labour needs to embrace the political centre ground. But the radical wing will argue the opposite, insisting that Labour could have won if it had presented a bolder alternative to the Conservatives.
In Scotland, Labour has been outflanked on the left by a nationalist party, which advocated not just independence but an end to economic austerity and a greater emphasis on equality. The scale of the Scottish nationalists’ success is striking; indeed it reshapes British politics. Scotland has 59 seats in the U.K. Parliament — the Scottish National Party had six MPs in the last Parliament; they now have 56.
New political dimensions Just eight months ago, the Scots voted in a referendum against separating from the rest of the U.K. But the surge in support for the nationalists is likely to re-open the issue, particularly if they repeat their success in elections for the Scottish Parliament next year. By 2020, Scotland could well be on its way to full independence. Mr. Cameron addressed this directly when speaking outside 10 Downing Street on Friday. “We will govern as a party of one nation,” he pledged, adding that further devolution of powers will go ahead promptly. But the tensions of a new political settlement embracing not only Scotland but every other part of Britain will be one of his most pressing problems.
There’s another aspect of Britain’s political system that will also face close scrutiny. The three main nationwide parties — Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — together won 75 per cent of the vote. Five years ago, they took more than 95 per cent of all votes cast. This sharp swing away from the established parties is one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2015 election.
While the SNP has emerged with a large band of MPs, other parties that have polled strongly will have hardly any representation at Westminster. The right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which wants stricter controls on immigration, took more than three million votes, but has ended up with one MP. The Leftwing Greens did less well, but with a fully proportional system they would have 20 MPs, and they, too, have only one. On both right and left, there will be demands for a new look at a voting system that is not well suited to the multi-party politics that now appears to be a lasting aspect in Britain.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.)