Scarcely can there ever have been such hype surrounding the news that a British High Commissioner in Delhi was to visit one of India’s States. Yet the visit of His Excellency James Bevan to Gujarat and the announcement that he will meet with the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi has been greeted with both rejoicing and outrage in almost equal (and equally unjustified) measure.
Narendra Modi was the newly elected Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when a train was torched at Ghodra killing some 60 or more Hindu religious acolytes. Three days of rioting followed in the state capital city of Ahmedabad as Hindu mobs sought “vengeance” on the Muslim community who they blamed for the fire. Almost one thousand people died. It was a tragedy, like all too many religious riots that have taken place in India; but it was a tragedy for which Narendra Modi has paid a very particular political price.
The Hindu nationalist rhetoric that had propelled him to power as Chief Minister was now accused of having incited the rioters and the British High Commission in Delhi quietly broke off all relations with him. Since that time no British diplomat or Minister has visited Gujarat in an official capacity and Narendra Modi was ostracised for ten years.
Was this ostracism justified? Not according to the Inquiries set up by the Indian Supreme Courts under Congress Governments (Modi is opposition BJP). Nor according to the Indian judicial system who have indeed handed out severe sentences to those found to have been implicated in the riots, but who found Modi blameless. Modi is no consensus liberal politician. He is a Hindu nationalist and he speaks out strongly against the Pakistan government for failing to control its ISI secret service and the terrorism it sponsors. Understandable you may think when one considers that Gujarat is a border state that has suffered a number of appalling terrorist attacks. Indeed some would point out that American generals have said and thought much worse about Pakistan’s failure to get a grip on terrorists.
After the four days of riots in London last year Modi sent his friends a short email: “How long did it take you to stop the rioting in London?” There was no bitterness in his words. It was typical though, of his wry humour to point out that neither David Cameron, nor The London Mayor had been able to bring the situation back under control in the three days it had taken him to quell much larger mobs in Gujarat.
Nonetheless the UK continued to hold Modi responsible for those three days of rioting saying that he could and should have done more to stop the tragedy. So what has now changed? Perhaps most important of all was the arrival of a new High Commissioner in Delhi. James Bevan perhaps looked at the situation more objectively and with the benefit of hindsight: after all ten years is a long time to break off all official relations with a state which conducts more UK business than the rest of India put together. A charming and strategically far-sighted diplomat, Bevan may well have considered that with LK Advani now well into his eighties and the BJP looking as if they might become the largest party in 2014 elections, it would be foolish for the UK not to be on speaking terms with the man who may yet become the next Prime Minister of India.
Perhaps most important of all I suspect Bevan judged the man on his record. Modi has twice overwhelmingly been re-elected as Chief Minister in Gujarat with the strong support of both Moslem and Hindu communities. Even his staunchest detractors allow that he has cleaned up the corruption that bedevils life in most other Indian States and that he is personally beyond reproach on all matters of personal behaviour. He has rolled out programmes of rural electrification that have transformed the remotest villages and he has followed up by connecting them with metalled roads and primary education and healthcare programmes.
Gujarat is now reckoned to be far and away the easiest and best place to do business in India and Ratan Tata famously noted that whereas he had struggled against bureaucracy for three years to set up his Nano factory in West Bengal, he came to Gujarat and got the necessary consents in three days!
So is this a historic meeting? No; it is the perfectly rational resumption of normal relations between two trading partners who made the mistake of letting what was a human and political tragedy become a source of unspoken conflict for far too long. The Gujarati community in the UK will no doubt rejoice at Modi’s “rehabilitation” by the British Government.
The truth is that no rehabilitation should have been necessary. Modi is acknowledged across India as one of the great Chief Ministers of the past 65 years since India’s independence. He is not universally loved but he is universally respected. In time he may prove to be a great Prime Minister and then we in Britain should hope that he looks back on the past decade as a simple aberration in a relationship with the UK that needs to be strategic, commercial, forward-looking and friendly.
Hon Barry Gardiner MP
Barry Strachan Gardiner is a British Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Brent North since 1997.
He served as a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, the Department of Trade and Industry and finally in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.