Open Essay

Modi at Home and Abroad

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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What the Prime Minister should do to decouple his own image from that of Donald Trump

There must be days when Narendra Modi wishes he could dust down the now famous hologram machine that transported his image across India during his whirlwind election campaign. The demands on any head of government are intense, and even more so when he is in charge of a large, economically significant nation. Modi cannot be everywhere and as Prime Minister he doesn’t have the option of using technological wizardry to get over the imbalance between the demand for his presence and his ability to meet it.

Recent reports suggest that Modi is cutting down on his international travel and will be spending less time jumping on and off aeroplanes in 2016. His staggering amount of foreign visits since moving into 7 Race Course Road in New Delhi has certainly got him noticed on the world stage. It’s been calculated that in that short time, he has visited 33 countries and has had dealings with no fewer than two-thirds of the world’s political leaders. The pros and cons of all that globe-trotting have been widely debated and Modi has been swift to defend his frequent absence on the grounds that it has raised India’s diplomatic standing in the world and helped to generate the promise of much-needed investment from abroad.

Modi is not the kind of politician ever to admit that his opponents might have a point, so he would never concede that cutting down on his travel was in response to Rahul Gandhi’s barb that he should give up his foreign tours, “stop campaigning and start working”. But in the wake of his domestic political reverses, culminating in his humiliation in Bihar on the eve of his visit to London in November, the benefits of staying at home and concentrating on domestic issues are obvious. At no point during the General Election of 2014 did he say, ‘Vote for me and I’ll travel the world’.

Modi has made his mark with world leaders and demonstrated his ability to command attention and demand equal respect at the international top table. That kind of esteem is good for the ego (yes, Modi has one) and can be addictive. But the Prime Minister has no reason to fear that being less visible on the world stage will make him less influential. His voice will still be heard.

Leadership, like charity, begins at home. But it need not and should not end there. Even while spending a lot more time on Indian soil, Modi can still play an important role in the world. And in one hugely significant area his contribution would be profound and greatly welcomed by many of those prime ministers and presidents that he’s engaged with on his travels. But it would take a touch of humility on his part and a willingness to recognise that he hasn’t got everything right as Prime Minister. If he had the courage to do it, his standing globally would be enhanced and many of his domestic critics would be forced to reassess him.

The issue is integration. Modi’s failure, for a man of so many words, is his silence when those closely associated with him and with the BJP seek to equate being Muslim with being a threat. That is to simplify a very complex issue, of course, but that over- simplification calls for a clear and unambiguous statement of rejection because it is gaining traction around the world. And who better to do it than an avowedly Hindu nationalist leader of a nation with a significant Muslim population and a wealth of other religious and cultural traditions living cheek by jowl? So when, to pick a notorious example, BJP Member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath said that the more Muslims there were living in an area, the more likely it was that rioting would take place, a robust denunciation from Modi would have been more appropriate than deafening silence.

There are many reasons why a bold intervention now by the Prime Minister of India would have such a beneficial impact globally. The most obvious is the rise of a man sometimes described as the US’s own Narendra Modi, Donald J Trump. To some, Trump is little more than a joke. But Americans are about to start the process of choosing their presidential candidates, and if Trump’s poll ratings hold up, he is on course to be the Republican candidate. Then the joke would be over. Trump’s call last December for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ on Muslims entering America did nothing to dent his popularity. Despite the howls of outrage at such an insulting, impractical and counter-productive proposal, Trump has sought to legitimise the sentiments of many Americans that ‘Muslim’ equals ‘terrorist’.

Trump is likened to Modi because of his brash populism, his skill in enthusing huge crowds and his ability to confront the mainstream media without losing popular support. For the most part, world leaders try not to get drawn into each other’s election campaigns. Trump’s message is so dangerous, however, that this convention is being widely ignored in his case. Britain’s David Cameron was one of the first to condemn Trump’s words, calling them “divisive, stupid and wrong”. More recently he has accused Trump of making a fundamental mistake, trying to blame all of Islam and Muslims for the actions of a minority. By doing so, said Cameron, he was making it more difficult to defeat the extremists.

If Modi were to add his own forthright condemnation to those of Cameron and others, it would be an act of great leadership and courage. When I interviewed the Prime Minister for my book, The Modi Effect, he told me he was proud to be able to communicate, “what we can do for the world, which is so different to what happened many times when our leaders have communicated what India wants”. It is easy to criticise Modi for his tendency towards self-aggrandisement, but this may be a rare example of where he underestimates his own importance. He is uniquely placed to make the case for religious tolerance and for embracing diversity as a pre-requisite for economic and social progress.

He would no doubt say that he does this already. When he visited London last November, he repeated his mantra that “India is full of diversity. This diversity is our pride and is our strength. Diversity is the speciality of India”. Yet the media coverage that surrounded his visit told a different story. Whether he likes it or not—and he clearly does not—the perception exists in Western countries that India is becoming increasingly intolerant. His comments about diversity appeared defensive. “Don’t believe the India you see on TV screens and newspaper headlines,” he pleaded.

Those who will never believe that Modi is sincere in his commitment to diversity suspect him of uttering such sentiments only because foreigners, whose help he needs, want to hear them. If he is to spend more time in India then it is on his home territory that he can best prove the doubters wrong. In the process, he would also add some much-needed support to those around the world who are trying to stem the tide of hatred and division that threatens to tear communities apart and polarise people of different faiths and traditions.

Modi has already set out why the world should take notice of India. At New York’s Madison Square Garden, Modi set out the ‘three Ds’ which the country had to offer. Democracy, demographics and demand. Most governments focused on the second and third, hoping that the prospect of impressive growth and a young labour market could help kickstart a sluggish global economy. Yet the current malaise in capitals from Washington and London to Berlin and Brussels is as much about democracy as it is about economics. It is impossible to say which creates the greatest apprehension, the fear of a new financial crisis or of a democratic breakdown. By adding a fourth D—diversity—Modi could begin to show that India can be part of the solution to the world’s political problems too.

Both in the United States and in Europe, the traditional political ideologies of left and right are under greater strain than I can remember for many years. Superficially, right-wing parties appear the more secure. The inability of most parties of the left to identify and articulate a governing philosophy for the modern world is the right’s saving grace. Just as the failings of the Congress gave Modi and the BJP their opportunity, so here in the UK and in much of continental Europe the electoral weakness of the left has allowed conservative leaders the luxury of putting their own philosophical and ideological uncertainties to one side, hoping they can be addressed in less turbulent times. In the United States, with a divisive presidential election campaign now getting underway, that time is now.

The fault lines are for the most part concerned with identity, citizenship and the threats, both real and imagined, to individual and national security. Faced with the spectre of brutal jihadism abroad, the risks of home-grown terrorism from within radicalised communities in our big cities, and panic over the scale of attempted illegal immigration, the easy response is to resort to the politics of fear. This is at the heart of Donald Trump’s populism. More responsible politicians are desperately seeking out more palatable and workable solutions while remaining mindful of the deep-seated anxieties within their electorates.

In Europe, governments have had to respond to these pressures in different ways. In the process, the bonds that supposedly bind the countries of the European Union together are starting to fray and in some cases break. The migration crisis, with thousands of refugees from wars and famines arriving in the European Union, often after perilous journeys across the seas, has left no nation immune. The situation is at its most acute in those places like Greece where the boats come ashore. Here, the crisis is a humanitarian one with the need to feed and house people who have arrived with nothing. Many have given their last dollars to the evil people traffickers in return for the promise of safe passage and a better future. The hundreds of dead bodies, including those of young children, washed up on European beaches after overcrowded boats have sunk or capsised is testament to the hollowness of those promises.

Where the boats do come ashore, individuals, many of them poor themselves, have shown great charity and humanity in welcoming the refugees. If there are economic migrants among the crowds, as there certainly are, this has not been allowed to undermine the humanitarian efforts to provide some degree of comfort for those in such obvious need. But further afield, such charity has been in shorter supply. Governments, often under pressure from the more hysterical elements of their national media, aided and abetted by wannabe Trumps of their own, have struggled to agree on a collective strategy for absorbing an influx of migrants that shows no sign of abating. Angela Merkel in Germany has been forced to retreat from her initially sympathetic stance. And even traditionally liberal nations with a history of welcoming refugees, like Denmark and Sweden, have imposed new controls.

Britain, where immigration has long been a sensitive political issue, has been one of the most reluctant to accept anything more than a trickle of new arrivals. Here, as elsewhere, the political debate is made more acute by the fact that most of the refugees are Muslims from war-torn Arab states. The risk, however slight, of importing anti-Western hatred along with those in genuine need of sanctuary is considered too great. It is not uncommon to hear the view expressed that ‘Britain is already full’. And in so far as the pressure to accept more refugees is coming from the European Union, the most likely political impact is to increase support for those who want a ‘no’ vote in the forthcoming referendum that will decide whether the UK remains in the EU at all.

Against this background, it is naïve to think that a speech, or even a series of interventions, from Narendra Modi will transform the debate. But given India’s history, he could make a powerful case for recognising the enormous contribution minority Muslim and other communities can make to a nation, both economically and politically. Let him use his favourite examples from Gujarat by all means. And if it requires him to condemn some of his more belligerent supporters, so much the better. It would surely be good politics for him to decouple his own image from that of Donald Trump. And it would be evidence of strong leadership, not weak, for him to reject the link—sometimes explicit, more often implied—between Islam and terrorism. Will he do it? Probably not. But it is precisely because it is so improbable that its impact would be so profound.