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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.