The far-right Gujarat nationalist, Narendra Modi, is one of the world’s most controversial politicians. In 2002, when he was chief minister, Muslims were horrifically massacred in the western Indian state. He is now aiming to become prime minister of India, a huge country with nuclear weapons. It is disturbing that the Labour Friends of India, closely followed by the Conservative Friends of India, have invited him to address MPs in the House of Commons.
Modi is a key figure in the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), part of a Hindu supremacist movement that many moderate Hindus regard as opposing the core values of their faith. Eleven years ago, Gujarat police stood by or joined in as rioters burnt down homes, raped and killed, supposedly in retaliation for an attack on a train in which Hindus were killed.
The legal system has been slow to bring to justice those responsible for leading the violence, though some have now been convicted. Zakia Jafri, a survivor of a massacre in which her husband and 68 other Muslims were murdered, has been pursuing Modi himself through the courts. Human rights organisations have also raised concerns about dozens of unlawful killings by police in Gujarat.
His admirers are campaigning to make him appear respectable in the eyes of Indians and the international community, allowing him to pursue his ambition to take charge of India. Yet their efforts have been undermined not only by the persistence of human rights supporters, but also by his abrasive personality and defiant extremism. This year he made it clear he feels no guilt about the 2002 riots, comparing the killings to being in a car when a puppy is run over.
Days later he accused the rival Congress party of hiding behind a “burqa of secularism” to cover its failings. His party is also promoting his stance as an unashamed Hindu nationalist. Dissatisfaction with the current government’s weaknesses, and a fragmented democratic opposition, may lead sizeable numbers of voters to turn to the BJP. India has the world’s second largest population, with 1.2 billion people. Minorities and dissidents would be highly vulnerable if Modi were to become prime minister.
In addition it is a regional power and armed with nuclear weapons. If an anti-Muslim fanatic took control there, this could also destabilise neighbouring Pakistan, with which it has long had a tense relationship. An escalation of hostilities could have devastating consequences for the world.
A visit to the UK and approval by MPs could bolster Modi’s international prestige, increasing his chances of winning power. After all, some voters may think, if British leaders regard him as a good choice to lead India, surely his critics must be exaggerating his failings?
Certainly the MPs who have invited him, including Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, and Shailesh Vara, Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire, do not seem deterred by his grim record and ongoing extremism. Their enthusiasm may prove embarrassing for their parties.
He is the “chief minister of the state in India with which Britain does the most business,” Gardiner declared. “He is obviously a key player in Indian politics, and as such he is somebody British politicians need to hear from.” The more such invitations he receives, the greater his chances of rising to the top.
The rest of us may be less keen to see him in charge of India, including its armed forces made up of 1.3 million men and women in uniform and an additional million in reserve, and with his finger on the nuclear button.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and lives in London. She has worked in the voluntary sector, mainly in equalities, health and social care. She has contributed to several books and periodicals.