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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.