It is often said that the longer they hold office, the more national leaders enjoy the distractions of occasional trips abroad. That so many assume this holds for Narendra Modi, who begins his first official visit to Britain this week, barely a year and a half after his stunning victory in national elections, gives a sense of how quickly his fortunes have ebbed.
India’s prime minister, a polished showman and gifted communicator, will have meetings with David Cameron and lunch with the Queen, and will visit the former home of B R Ambedkar, a champion of India’s lower castes, in Primrose Hill, north London. But as on recent trips to New York, San Francisco and Sydney, the main event will be a glitzy stadium show for members of India’s diaspora, 60,000 of whom are set to pack into Wembley Stadium on Friday 13 November. Few world leaders can match Modi for these raw displays of soft power.
Even so, he arrives a diminished figure. Last week he suffered a heavy defeat in elections in Bihar, an eastern state with 105 million people, and one of the central political battlegrounds in India’s Hindi-speaking heartland. Those same Biharis backed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies last May, encouraged by promises to create jobs and end corruption, helping the BJP become the first party in a generation to win a majority in India’s lower house of parliament. They were less charitable this time, handing victory to a hastily formed coalition of Modi rivals. The defeat was Modi’s second in state polls in 2015, leaving him weaker politically than at any time since his climb to national prominence began more than five years ago.
When far from home, Modi quickly re-finds the voice that won over his countrymen in 2014 – a leader with a no-nonsense approach to economic development, but one who also seemed to have outgrown the worst extremes of his party’s Hindu nationalist wing. He shows a softer side, too. A few months ago in Silicon Valley he swapped bear hugs with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and talked emotionally about his mother. Even without such theatrics, Modi remains popular among prosperous diasporan Indians, who will arrive at Wembley ready to cheer.
That this part of Modi’s trip is all but guaranteed to go well will come as something of a relief in Britain, where the government has fretted that the pomp offered last month to China’s president, Xi Jinping, would leave their latest guest feeling belittled. Cameron often says that rebuilding ties with India ranks as his foremost foreign policy priority. He has visited the country often, both as opposition leader and as prime minister. Modi was slow in reciprocating, leading many to spy an old grudge.
Britain cut ties with Modi when he was accused of complicity in 2002’s bloody anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the state that he ran as chief minister. Over the next decade he grew more politically powerful, but also distanced himself from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hardline Hindu group in which he once served as a foot soldier. Both these factors smoothed the way for relations to be renewed in 2012. Even so, he is said to recall the indignities of his pariah years only too well, which explains why he visited dozens of countries before Britain.
For all this, Modi’s stature abroad only makes his domestic predicament more perplexing. The economy is listless. Growth will be at least 7 per cent this year, an impressive rate compared to other emerging markets, but one helped along by the good fortune of low oil prices. After years of inertia under the previous Congress government, many hoped Modi would push through structural economic reforms, making it easier to build infrastructure or slim down state enterprises. Ordinary voters had more modest hopes: a job, or reliable power supply at home. Yet while Modi has proved masterful at launching national campaigns to push for cleaner streets or basic sanitation, he has delivered little that is tangible to voters in such places as Bihar.
The Bihar campaign also brought greater attention to complaints from liberal-minded Indians who worry that Modi is shedding his secular garb. Concerns about a rising intolerance focused on the lynching in late September of Mohammad Akhlaq, a 50-year-old Muslim farmworker, by a group of angry Hindus who falsely accused him of having killed and eaten a cow. That act was not linked directly to either Modi’s party or the ongoing election. But the BJP’s Bihar campaign included various forms of unsavoury dog-whistle politics, from pledges of cow protection to claims that a Modi defeat would prompt celebrations in Pakistan. The lynching in particular caused such a clamour that Modi eventually spoke out against it, albeit cautiously and belatedly. Arun Shourie, a one-time Modi ally-turned-trenchant critic, was not the only observer to note that India’s leader was unwilling to criticise those in his party who appeared to be inflaming tensions for electoral gain.
If that was indeed a part of the BJP’s strategy, it failed. Instead, Bihar’s verdict has revealed a conundrum at the heart of Modi’s rule – of the self-styled strongman leader unable to leave his stamp on events, be that by pushing through unpopular economic decisions or quieting rowdy elements within his own ranks. Ever since last year’s triumph, it has been taken as given that he will gain a second victory in 2019. This remains the most likely outcome, but it is at least now open to doubt. Meanwhile, those who feared all along that Modi’s promises of economic reform and relative political liberalism might turn out to be illusory can only hope that he returns from London ready to prove them wrong.
James Crabtree is the Mumbai correspondent of the Financial Times
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain