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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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