Narendra Modi is on a winning streak in London, which he is visiting for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that began this morning.
He had an ego-boosting day on April 20, having flown in from Sweden the night before. He was met at the airport by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary.
Theresa May, the prime minister, gave him breakfast, met him again at a technical center, and saw him at a formal Commonwealth leaders’ dinner in the evening. He met the Queen for tea and saw Prince Charles (below) at the Science Museum. No other Commonwealth leader had so much attention.
Between tea and dinner, a new avatar emerged – in advance of the general election due in a year’s time – of a quiet and thoughtful Narendra Modi, full of simple homilies like “work hard.” There were stories about his youth and life from a tea seller’s stall to a “visitor to royal palaces,” interspersed occasionally with issues such as surgical strikes on Pakistan and dealing with rapes.
Modi was speaking at an event in Central Hall, Westminster called Bharat Ki Bata, Sabke Saath, (Talking of India, With Everybody) with an audience of 1,500 cheering people of Indian origin, many of them from his home state of Gujarat.
Here was the prime minister, renowned for being a tough, unapproachable politician and a great orator used to bellowing out his messages (as he did at a spectacular last time he was in London in November 2015), sitting with an interviewer gently answering questions in an often fatherly-like manner.
He found time during the day for an astute political move in which he garlanded a statue of Basava, the founder saint of the Lingayat community, which is an important vote bank in the coming Karnataka state assembly election. The community is controversial because it is trying to carve an identity away from mainstream Hinduism, so it was neat for Modi, a powerful Hindu nationalist leader, to show respect for their founder.
India is also getting good press with newspaper stories about how it’s will overtake the UK and become the biggest economy in the 53-country Commonwealth by GDP in the next year or so (the timing will partly depend on the value of the pound and rupee). “You could almost call it the Indian Commonwealth,” BBC Newsnight’s presenter semi-joked on television last night, remembering it used to be called the British Commonwealth.
The meeting with Theresa May capped off a number of deals and agreements covering terrorism, cyber and other international crime, space, technology sharing through a hub at the UK high commission in Delhi, cleaning the Ganges, and skill development.
There is even to be an ayurvedic institute on traditional Indian medicine (combining the interests of Prince Charles and Modi, who have developed a rapport after a dinner together in Delhi last November).
But the two leaders failed to renew a memorandum of understanding that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK. This had been expected but talks will continue. It links with the sensitive area of visas, with India wanting more access to the UK, as well as the UK pushing India for faster and greater immigrant returns.
The Bharat Ki Batt event (below) was of course pre-arranged – rigged, some would call it. The interviewer was Parson Joshi, a branding expert and a poet who heads the McCann World advertising group that worked on Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Joshi asked the mostly gentle questions, with a few prearranged ones coming from the audience.
The event went on for two hours and will have won over the Indian audience, who will be telling their relatives back home what a nice gentle man Modi really is.
In India there was blanket tv coverage, and the event marginalized several hundred demonstrators who were corralled by police in the nearby Parliament Square protesting over issues such as Kashmir, rape, and a Khalistan independent Punjab.
Modi spent so much time talking about himself and his views and attitudes, and how his leadership fitted in with the emergence of India on the world stage, that he teased himself for doing so. Looking at his watch he said, “Some people might say it is time to stop…and say that it’s all stage managed so he can talk about himself!”
But he didn’t stop and went on to answer a series of Joshi’s “last questions,” the final one about how he wanted to be remembered by history. Modi replied that since no one remembered who wrote the Hindu religion’s sacred Vedas texts, how could it matter how a “nobody” like him was remembered. Earlier he had said, “Modi was not born to get his name included in the pages of history. I just want to do my job and nothing more than that. I do not want to be immortalized in the pages of history.
“Ask not how I would like to be remembered, ask what India represents to the world…. I have no need for fame or riches or power. I have lived through poverty, I am restless for India’s development.”
He is being heavily criticized in India for not speaking out strongly about rape, Last night he said “Rape is rape … How can we accept this?” and “This is a matter of great concern for the country and these sinners are somebody’s sons…. the rape of a (daughter) is a matter of worry, a shame for the country.” He then turned it into a parental problem rather than one of unacceptable male violence saying, “When a girl comes home late, all parents are worried. When a boy goes out and comes home late, why don’t we ask him where he was?”
Asked about the Indian army’s “surgical strikes” in Pakistan in 2016, he described the country as a “terror export factory” and said the strikes were aimed at sending an unequivocal message to the neighboring country.
“We believe in peace,” he said. “But we will not tolerate those who like to export terror. We will give back strong answers and in the language they understand. Terrorism will never be accepted.”
Returning to his personal attitudes, he even said: “I always welcome criticism. People sometimes ask me why don’t I speak up against them. But my job is not to shut the mouth of people who are criticizing me, it’s my job to think where I am going wrong.”
How other Commonwealth leaders will react to the emergence of Modi as what could be an aspirant first among equals remains to be seen. There are even rumors he will travel in a separate car, not the coach carrying other leaders, when the summit moves today to Windsor Castle, an hour or so’s drive from central London.
India is adept at mismanaging its international relations, especially with its neighbors, because it has not discovered how to project its power without upsetting others. Modi has a chance to show the lesson is being learned.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.