United Kingdom: Narendra Modi’s Visit Brings Controversy

A great deal of positivity has informed media coverage of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three day visit to the United Kingdom which begins later today.

Modi’s rise from having helped his father to sell tea at a small train station in Gujarat to become the leader of the world’s largest democracy has prompted many commentators to present him as a poster boy for India’s breaking free of the restrictions traditionally imposed on social mobility by the caste system.

After all, Modi’s family is officially categorized as an Other Backward Class in Indian law and the manner in which his 2014 general election campaign focused on growing the country’s economy rather than on traditional social issues meant that he stood out as precisely the kind of modernizing force who could improve India’s economic ties with countries like the United Kingdom and the United States.

Modi’s early understanding of the power of social media to help to cultivate popular support further strengthened this image of him as a forward thinking, down to earth leader. Indeed, the PM’s 16 million Twitter followers (Barack Obama is the only politician with more) can expect to receive regular updates on the progress of his visit to the United Kingdom which will include audiences with the Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron as well as an address to the more than 60,000 British Indians expected to attend a rally at Wembley Stadium.

The Financial Times predicted that Modi’s visit will generate a sum in the region of £10 billion in trade deals for the United Kingdom and Indian economies and the PM’s younger brother Prahlad Modi commented to the Daily Telegraph that the trip is a moment of great pride for the estimated 1.7 million Indians living in Britain.

“It is a matter if immense pride that someone who rose from our humble roots as a tea-seller on the trains would be invited to visit the Queen whose family once ruled half the world”, Prahlad said.

But for all of the excitement which has greeted Modi’s arrival in the United Kingdom, the visit does not come without controversy. Indeed, up until 2012, he would not have been allowed enter United Kingdom territory at all.

Modi was elected to the Indian Prime Ministership as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an organization synonymous with aggressive Hindu nationalism. In 2002, a year after he was elected as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, rioting broke out in his district which left more than 1,000 Muslims dead.

Debate continues over the extent to which Modi can be held responsible for those deaths, however, his apparent inaction was sufficient for the United Kingdom to cease diplomatic ties with him for a decade. The fact that Modi was subsequently accused of promoting a culture of religious intolerance and violence against women meant that the United Kingdom’s stance appeared vindicated but the boycott was dropped three years ago when it became apparent that the BJP would win the 2014 elections.

Since acceding to the Prime Ministership, Modi has further been accused of limiting free speech and fermenting sectarian divisions and his United Kingdom visit comes against a background of diminishing domestic support.

The United Kingdom government will have to be prepared, therefore, to deal with the same kind of criticism which greeted the visit of the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping last month.

For Mr. Modi is nothing if not controversial.

[Photo by Pool/Getty Images]