BAs he attended the inauguration of a new JCB factory in Gujarat on Thursday, Boris Johnson might have thought he was putting his worries in Westminster behind. What was the harm in fighting for a successful British company owned by a major Tory donor? much, it happens. Mr Johnson became embroiled in a major human rights controversy over the use of JCB bulldozers in demolishing Muslim homes and businesses in Delhi and in states run by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party.
Mr Johnson should not have done that mugged for the cameras with the machinery used to intimidate religious minorities by a regime seemingly intent on creating a theocratic Hindu state. Perhaps he is unaware of the growing sense of vulnerability felt by India’s 200 million Muslims. But no one paying attention could overlook what Mr Modi is all about. He is the only person ever denied a US visa for “grave violations of religious liberty.” That was in 2005, after he had failed as Gujarat’s prime minister to stem a series of deadly anti-Muslim riots.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was seeing an increase in human rights abuses in India by “some government, police and prison officials.” The US often takes an instrumental approach to determining whether human rights abuses are being raised or overlooked. India’s democratic backsliding, coupled with Delhi’s refusal to speak out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has likely tipped the scales in the White House. But Mr Blinken’s warning should have been heeded by Mr Johnson.
Instead of keeping his distance, Mr Johnson gave Mr Modi a tight hug. India is projected to be the fastest growing major economy in the world in the next two years. London joins the list of capitals courting Mr Modi, though he refuses to choose sides against Moscow’s invasion. India’s bargaining power rests on its emergence as a key element in Western-led efforts to counterbalance China in the Indo-Pacific.
One assumption is that India is so indispensable in geopolitics that it will not offend its partners if it also confronts some of its opponents. Another reason is that the country is competently governed and has the social and economic resources to achieve its political goals. The latter is a live question. Mr Modi failed to grasp the magnitude of the Covid pandemic early on and his mistakes resulted in Delhi defaulting on its obligation to supply Covid vaccines to the EU. Last year, Germany’s then-Prime Minister Angela Merkel wondered if Europe had made a mistake in allowing India to become a major pharmaceutical producer. The British Prime Minister pointedly described India as the pharmacy of the world.
Mr Johnson, facing political oblivion because of his own pandemic blunders, might envy the ends – if not the means – of Mr Modi’s rule. The Indian Prime Minister has been in power since 2014. Its success is based on an aggressive attack on minorities, with economic policies that favor the rich. In Mr Modi’s populist repertoire, he claims the poor are his priority while doing little to tackle inequalities. Its appeal continues despite rising unemployment and deaths from Covid. Judges rarely confront the government. Opponents of civil society are imprisoned. But Britain is not India. The Indian lawyer BR Ambedkar sensed a fatal political error in his fellow citizens: the tendency to worship heroes, which he described as “a sure path to humiliation and ultimately to dictatorship”. In Mr. Modi, this prophecy could be fulfilled.