Friday 31 May 2024

The Modi-fication of British Politics

Without necessarily agreeing with every word of this, I have been banging on about its central point for years. Ollie Ryan Tucker writes:

Aligarh, a city in Uttar Pradesh, India, and Basingstoke, Hampshire, may seem to most observers to have little in common. Yet in recent weeks both have been the scenes of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rallies as Narendra Modi seeks a likely third term. In a form of political expression that is largely alien to the UK but becoming more prevalent, “over a hundred cars” gathered last week, adorned in the BJP’s saffron lotus flag, and paraded through Home Counties A-roads.

As Edward Anderson, the author of Hindu Nationalism in the Indian diaspora has noted, Hindutva has taken on vernacularised modern versions across the world. But the rise in number and change in profile of Indian immigrants in recent years in the UK has arguably led to a more direct relationship resulting in instances of the BJP’s political practices playing out in the UK. Omar Khan and Sunder Katwala have been correct to argue that “Hindu nationalism does not have the numbers in Britain to be a winning strategy among British Indians”. “British Indians” are themselves a disparate group, including Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and more. The concern is not, however, that Hindutva politics becomes a serious political constituency but rather that we are seeing the acceleration of an unwelcome trend, where external political battles are played out on British streets, often stoking the ire of other immigrant communities. A kind of cumulative extremism is the end result.

Anderson also notes that, “more recently, there is a sense of India attempting to emulate the Chinese in terms of a diaspora that is closely monitored, influenced, and instrumentalised for political objectives”. As Modi enters his almost certain third term, it is hard to see a move away from the policies and tones that have defined him so far — assassinations, intimidation, ready to throw out accusations of Hinduphobia when challenged.

Both Anderson, and other scholars of Britain’s multiculturalism have noted that “the British multicultural environment has provided a space for, and even encouraged, emergent forms of political representation and ethnic identity formation”. Today, some of Modi’s biggest cheerleaders in Britain are those who were elevated to positions of political power as part of a deliberate strategy by the Conservative Party to draw in British Hindu voters. Lord Popat, elevated to the House of Lords by David Cameron in 2013, accused the BBC of ‘stirring up religious hatred in the United Kingdom’ for a documentary that highlighted Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujurat riots. It was the official position of the UK government for 10 years that Modi was unacceptably implicated in the killings, leading to a de-facto travel ban, until the demands of realpolitik forced a change. Lord Ranger, nominated by Theresa May in 2019 wrote to the BBC asking if “Pakistani origin staff were behind this nonsense”. Meanwhile Baroness Verma, elevated in 2006, tells us that allegations of democratic backsliding are incorrect, and that Western parties should learn from Modi’s progress on women’s rights (Modi’s party does not view marital rape as a crime).

Political discussion in the UK is, largely for good reason, keen to avoid suggestions that some citizens have divided loyalty. Many British politicians have a proud history of dual-heritage, yet, we lack the political maturity to discuss when this veers into something else. Take Aman Bhogal, former Conservative candidate, who describes himself as a proud British Indian. Bhogal simultaneously extols the virtues of pluralism, which “New India” rejects, whilst echoing “Jai Shree Ram”, the chant of Hindutva nationalists. He criticises Labour Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s cautious reproach of Israel as “not in Britain’s national interest” and “rotten identity politics” whilst supporting the “reclaiming” of “New India’s” “civilisational heritage” and leading a Daily Express journalist on a chummy trip to experience “the aspirational spirit of New India”.

Labour is not immune to the same vulnerabilities. In a discussion on the “Battle for British Indian votes”, Labour councillor Rishi Madlani stated that they have been “taken for granted for far too long”. How exactly this is so is rarely unpacked publicly but it is discussed quite commonly in WhatsApp groups.

Those forwarded WhatsApp messages reveal that Labour’s supposed neglect of the British Indian community is largely based on its sympathy towards Kashmir and apathy towards Modi. The rare time this alleged neglect has taken on an explicitly domestic context was in a largely forgotten episode when Labour under both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn offered support for expanding the Equality Act to include caste discrimination, much to the chagrin of Britain’s established Hindu groups.

Today, Labour is taking particular care to re-energise its support among British Indians. Labour Friends of India, taking direct inspiration from Labour Friends of Israel, aims to “ensure India’s voice is heard and understood by the UK Government and Labour Party leadership”. It is in part behind a wave of British Indians standing in this General Election for Labour, having created and run the Mahatma Gandhi leadership programme to handpick and mentor British Indian talent in 2020, with support from the Labour Party. The Party has also established Labour Indians, whose X bio redirects readers to Labour’s own website.

As discussed above, the British approach to multiculturalism explicitly encourages and rewards identity formation along ethnic or religious grounds. In their explicit targeting of communities along these lines, both parties are playing into a failing approach. Whilst establishment politics was outraged at the sectarian cries of entryist Green Party politicians or George Galloway, it ignores that these outcomes are simply downstream of the very politics they are themselves encouraging. It simultaneously encourages and promotes identitarian politics, and then acts puzzled when they are unable to control them.

Both parties could take steps to rectify these failings. Both should commit to ending automatic voting rights for Commonwealth citizens, an imperial hangover that is without merit today. Second, both need to inculcate a culture of disdain for candidates demonstrating explicit loyalties to other nations. Third, and most importantly, if Britain wants to create a harmonious multi-ethnic and pluralist society, it must raise further barriers to entry from countries with a record of chauvinistic or sectarian politics.


  1. This has swung several seats several times.