Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Sidhuali near Lucknow, India. Photo: Getty
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We must not turn a blind eye to the election of Narendra Modi, India’s Milosevic

As a British citizen, I am ashamed that my government is willing to cosy up to standard-bearers of religious fascism – as long, it seems, as they aren’t Muslim.

When Jörg Haider, the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, joined the country’s coalition government in 2000, the res­ponse from the rest of the European Union was swift. Every other member state agreed to introduce diplomatic sanctions against Austria. Our then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, expressed “deep distaste” at Haider’s rise to power.

Fourteen years later, will Foreign Secretary William Hague express “deep distaste” if, as the polls suggest, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is declared prime minister of nuclear-armed India after 12 May? Will the EU have the guts to downgrade diplomatic ties with the world’s biggest democracy?

Of course not, even though Modi makes the late Haider look like a muesli-eating, sandal-wearing liberal. If we’re going to make analogies with European leaders, Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, is more in the mould of Milosevic than Haider.

Modi, who is 63, is a card-carrying member of the far-right, Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); he started volunteering for the group at the age of eight and became a full-time pracharak (pro­pagandist) for it at the age of 20. “The RSS is a secretive, militaristic, masculine cult; a distinct Indian form of fascism that was directly inspired by Italian Fascist youth movements,” Professor Chetan Bhatt, director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE, tells me. “Its founders greatly admired Hitler and Mussolini.” In Modi’s Gujarat, Adolf Hitler is glorified in secondary-school textbooks.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi turned a blind eye to – indeed, many would argue, even incited – a horrific wave of violence against Gujarat’s Muslim-minority population in February 2002, after a fire on a train which killed 59 passengers, most of them Hindu pilgrims, and which Modi blamed on “terrorists”. It is estimated that as many as 2,000 people were killed in the anti-Muslim pogroms that followed, and tens of thousands lost their homes.

A chilling report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in April 2002 documented how the orgy of killing, burning, raping and looting had been “actively supported by state government officials”. It spoke of how a pregnant Muslim teenager had had her womb “cut open with a sharp weapon . . . the unborn baby was taken out and both mother and the child were burnt dead”. Several witnesses were told by police: “We have no orders to save you.”

As a result, India’s Supreme Court described Modi as a “modern-day Nero”, fiddling while Gujarat burned. The National Human Rights Commission concluded that “there was a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of the rights to life . . . and dignity of the people of the state”. The bloodstained buck stopped with the BJP chief minister.

Modi has never apologised for the violence, nor has he expressed remorse. On the contrary, he explained away the killings as springing from “the natural and justified anger of the people”; dismissed relief camps for displaced Muslims as “baby-making factories”; and (I kid you not) compared his own sadness over the massacres with that of a driver who runs over a puppy.

A Modi-led India won’t be safe for the country’s 176 million Muslims – or 25 million Christians. Since the election campaign began, one of his hard-right allies has said the chief minister’s opponents would have to leave India and move to Pakistan once he was elected PM. Another suggested that Muslims could be prevented from buying property in Hindu-dominated areas.

Yet David Cameron’s government has been reaching out to Modi, the leader of one of India’s most business-friendly states. In October 2012, the UK lifted its travel ban on Modi and our high commissioner in India held his first meeting with the chief minister – even though three British citizens were murdered in the Gujarat violence.

It isn’t just members of the Conservative-led coalition rushing to embrace the darling of the Hindu nationalist right. In August 2013, Barry Gardiner, the shadow environment minister, invited Modi to visit parliament in his own capacity as chair of Labour Friends of India – or what Bhatt refers to as “Labour Friends of the RSS”. Disgracefully, Gardiner has praised Modi as “a hugely important figure”, defended his role in the 2002 killings and, in a contemptible attempt to minimise the awfulness of the events, compared them to the London riots of 2011.

As someone of Indian origin, I’m ashamed that the homeland of my parents is on the verge of making an authoritarian populist, with Muslim blood on his hands, the next head of government. Remember: India is a secular democracy where many Muslims have thrived. The current vice-president and foreign minister are both Muslims.

As a British citizen, I am also ashamed that my government is willing to cosy up to standard-bearers of religious fascism – as long, it seems, as they aren’t Muslim. The realpolitik excuse will not wash. “While the UK and European governments are obliged to engage with other heads of government,” Bhatt says, “there is considerable political and diplomatic flexibility how that engagement takes place.”

Putin, Castro, Chávez, Ahmadinejad, Milosevic . . . it is so easy to denounce our “official” enemies. Yet, inexcusably, we give a pass to the blood-drenched Modi. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the NS and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.