Narendra Modi unlikely to be missed at the G-7 summit in London

The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to give the summit a miss stems from the realisation that he would be the object of pity and would certainly be subjected to hard questions by the British media

Narendra Modi unlikely to be missed at the G-7 summit in London
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Ashis Ray/ London

Ambassador Satyabrata Pal, who prematurely passed away in 2019 after a strange accident in 2016, was senior to me at St Xavier’s School in Kolkata. He served with distinction as High Commissioner in South Africa and Pakistan, and as a member of the Indian Human Rights Commission after retirement. Satya to his friends, he unsurprisingly distinguished himself as Deputy High Commissioner for India in London from 2002 to 2005.

About the 2002 Gujarat riots, he wrote in The Wire: “An enormous amount of the High Commission’s time and that of the India Desk at the (British) Foreign Office was spent in trying to contain the damage.” Lal Krishna Advani as home minister of India visited London in August of that year and attempted to disarm critics by saying he would not try to defend the indefensible

A year later, though, Modi decided to visit the United Kingdom at the invitation of the Hindutva diaspora. The Foreign Office asked the High Commission to convey the British government’s anxieties to Delhi.

Modi brushed aside External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha’s advice to abandon the visit. Sinha then approached Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who agreed the trip should be cancelled. But powerful forces insisted Modi must proceed; and he did. Satya recalled: “That was how a visit that both the British and Indian governments absolutely did not want, took place.”

A couple of days after Modi’s arrival, the Foreign Office phoned the High Commission to indicate there could be a citizens’ move to arrest Modi – permitted under Britain’s Universal Jurisdiction Act. This did not happen because the British, to avoid an awkward situation, surrounded him with plain clothed security to avert a citizens’ capture. Meanwhile, the application for an arrest warrant was turned down in court on a technicality.

Once again in 2005 at the instance of the UK-based Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi toyed with a follow-up visit, despite the European Union having decided to ostracise him. The British authorities warned that the petition for an arrest warrant, which was refused on a technicality in 2003, could this time have a good chance of succeeding.

By now, moreover, there was a Congress-led government in India on which the powerful forces enjoyed no influence. The Centre informed Modi that he would have to fend for himself if he ignored the recommendation not to go. He opted for discretion as the better part of valour.

He has again it seems chosen discretion before valour. Earlier this week the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responding to media questions stated Modi “will not attend the G7 Summit (in Cornwall in south-west England) in person”. The reason given was the “prevailing Covid situation”.

Given the grave Covid crisis, the UK government was compelled to place India on a “red list”. In effect, no Indian citizen other than those resident in Britain, is allowed to enter the British Isles. But an exception was made for Modi and his entourage. Requirement of quarantine was waived though visitors would have been tested during the summit. India is not an integral part of G7 – which consists of the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada and Britain – only a “guest country” selected on an ad hoc basis with Australia, South Korea and South Africa. In fact, Modi would not have partaken in closed-door “members only” sessions. Modi’s contributions at international gatherings have generally gone unnoticed among mainstream media and people abroad. His absence will, therefore, not exactly be missed.

Indeed, it might have dawned on him that he could become an object of pity at the Summit, following his government’s mishandling of Covid. International media’s coverage of him and the certainty of facing awkward questions about incompetence, insensitivity and intolerance would also have deterred him.

The UK’s Guardian in a lengthy piece last month narrated the story of George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer under British Prime Minister David Cameron, rushing to Delhi to meet Modi after he came to power in 2014. “Osborne now concedes the romance never blossomed as he had hoped.”

The paper continued: “The Indian high commission must have felt they had hit a double jackpot when Johnson appointed (Priti) Patel as home secretary...She has unabashedly praised his (Modi’s) Hindu nationalism, hailed controversial economic policies such as the de-monetisation in 2016... and written letters welcoming Modi’s controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologues to the UK.”

Indians should be under no illusion about the industrialised world admiring Modi. They salivate over the size of the Indian consumer market and, since the economic reforms of 1991, the Indian government’s purchasing power. They simply want a piece of the pie.

Aid to India – demeaning for a country that only a decade ago was being punted as a potential challenger to China – is not out of any respect for Modi, but to prevent the Covid catastrophe from spilling over to the rest of the world.

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