Top hat: Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a party rally. Photo: Getty
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My passage to India, astrology versus Ebola and Ed’s “respect” for White Van Man

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts. 

In the west, most political leaders are ­despised by voters. Not so in India, from which my wife and I recently returned after a 17-day visit. Even in the southern state of Kerala, where red flags fly at the roadside and communist-led governments alternate with administrations led by the centre-left Congress, we heard expressions of warmth towards India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Formerly chief minister of Gujarat state, where he failed to prevent and, according to some critics, tacitly backed a pogrom against Muslims, Modi is a Hindu nationalist and supporter of neoliberal economic policies. But as a child he helped his father sell tea from a railway station stall and this, we were told, enables him to understand common people’s problems.

Modi certainly has a populist touch. His “Clean India” campaign, launched with pictures of him wielding a broom in Delhi streets, strikes me as pure Tony Blair: an “initiative” unrelated to any plausible programme for action. Anybody can see and, indeed, smell that, in its public spaces, India is a revolting mess. Travelling by train, a Gujarati family cheerfully tossed empty plastic bottles and curry trays out of the window into pristine countryside and then roared with delighted laughter when I, presumably categorised as a prim, anally retentive westerner, ejected a biodegradable banana skin. But pride in the environment is hardly likely to flourish in a country where the absence of safe tap water compels everybody to carry bottles, lack of sanitation forces half the population to defecate outdoors, cows freely roam city streets, and litter bins are rare. What Modi intends to do about these shortcomings remains unclear.

Caste on not caste off

Modi was born into a caste listed among “other backward classes”, which are not as lowly as Dalits (“untouchables”) but, under India’s elaborate and largely theoretical system of positive discrimination, are supposedly entitled to more than a quarter of civil-service positions. Caste still matters enormously in India. Modi, despite his origins, is reported to be building “a social coalition of upper castes” and newspapers analysed his latest cabinet changes to show which castes gained most. (One also listed the value of each minister’s assets – a service that our own press could usefully imitate.)

Just over 5 per cent of marriages cross caste boundaries. In a newspaper “matrimonials” section, some ads were categorised by profession (“Medico Girl [wanted] for MD (PSYCH) . . . boy from Lucknow”), religion or nationality. But most were categorised by caste, with those headed “caste no bar” occupying less than half a column. Such advertisements have never been necessary in Britain, where these things were (and to some extent still are) arranged through word of mouth, gentlemen’s clubs, debutantes’ balls and attendance at elite schools and universities.

Trust in the stars

India is full of history and fine old buildings but most of what tourists see is Turkish, Mongol, Afghan, Persian, British, Portuguese and so on, rather than Indian. India’s history is a fragmented one, punctuated by repeated invasions, sudden withdrawals of ruling regimes (of which the British withdrawal in 1947 was as sudden as any) and episodes of appalling violence. Only over the past 67 years have Indians been able to develop any kind of national narrative; the English, by contrast, developed one over nearly a millennium before it was ruptured by loss of empire, with consequences that are still emerging.

This must explain why, despite their veneration for ancient customs, Indians have a rather careless attitude to the physical remains of their country’s past. The Taj Mahal and other attractions in the “golden triangle” are well preserved but, as travel writers frequently observe, India has many neglected and disfigured monuments. As V S Naipaul wrote in An Area of Darkness – first published in 1964 but still an indispensable guide to India – “Which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain?” Better to retreat into fatalism and trust in the stars: our hotel in Agra had a resident astrologer with a seat in the lobby and, as recently as 2011, the Bombay high court reaffirmed astrology’s status as a ­science fit to be taught in universities.

Birthday bugs

The visit to India was my 70th-birthday treat. My friend Francis Beckett, now revising his excellent Clement Attlee biography, points out that Labour’s greatest prime minister also celebrated his 70th in India and recorded that “about half a million locusts arrived to assist in the celebration”. I had no such unwelcome guests. However, the detailed questionnaire about our recent travels and health that we had to complete on arrival, and the nose and mouth masks ostentatiously worn by immigration officers, suggest an invasion of the ebola virus is expected imminently.

White van crash

Back to Britain, to find Labour in yet more turmoil, thanks in part to the editor of this magazine continuing the fine NS tradition (at which I like to think I excelled) of rocking the boat. However, the latest wound is self-inflicted. With a by-election loss imminent, the Tories, assisted by media allies, inevitably made the most of Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, tweeting a picture of a house draped in three large flags of St George with a white van outside. But it would have been a 24-hour wonder without Ed Miliband’s decision to sack Thornberry, which suggests growing panic and loss of confidence. What does he mean when he says we should “respect” the flag-crazy van owner? For what exactly? For his proficiency as “a cage fighter” or his endeavours “in the motor trade”, these being the only available pieces of information about his life and achievements? Perhaps I have it wrong, but I thought respect was supposed to be earned. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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