Diplomacy

When Mr. Modi Went to London

His 2003 visit to the UK was a nerve-racking and politically fraught affair, writes Satyabrata Pal, who was India’s Deputy High Commissioner in London at the time

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his UK counterpart David Cameron at Wembley Stadium  in London on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo

The last laugh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his UK counterpart David Cameron at Wembley Stadium in London on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo

It’s admirable that Narendra Modi puts no premium on English, speaking instead in Hindi at his press conference in London, which no Indian Prime Minister before him has. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in every other way a far greater man, was strangely diffident on this point: struggling to respond in English to Anglophone interlocutors, he became tongue-tied. Tony Blair once told Manmohan Singh that in 2002, when he had made several trips to Delhi, and George Bush had asked him before one of them why he was going back when he had been there recently, he had said that he had put a question then to Vajpayee, to which he hoped this time to get a reply.

Modi is quick with his responses and – because he speaks in Hindi – precise. We know therefore that when a journalist asked the British prime minister if he was comfortable welcoming a person who for the first two years of his premiership was not permitted to visit Britain because of his record as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi replied that he would “keep the record straight”, he had never been banned from visiting the UK, he had been received warmly and with respect in 2003, and had not been able to visit again as CM because he was busy.

That reply reminded me of a report to the National Human Rights Commission on a man who had been choked to death in custody; the police said that he had died of breathing difficulties, which of course was not untrue.

Truth of the 2003 visit

I was  India’s deputy high commissioner to the UK at the time and the truth is a little more complicated. Throughout 2002, after the Gujarat riots, the British media was up in arms, particularly since a family of Indian origin was among the Muslim victims. The Conservatives demanded that the Labour government live up to its claim that it ran an ethical foreign policy, Amnesty and other human rights organisations were on the warpath, the NRIs were split down the middle, and the bilateral relationship came under strain. An enormous amount of the High Commission’s time, and that of the India Desk at the Foreign Office, was spent in trying to contain the damage. L.K. Advani visited in August, briefly disarming the critics by saying that he would not try to defend the indefensible, but Gujarat would not go away because the scale of the atrocity and the indifference of the state government were impossible to ignore.

It was into this simmering discontent that Modi decided in the summer of 2003 that he would immerse himself with a visit to the UK at the invitation of the Gujarati Hindu diaspora.

The British government’s reaction was neither warm nor respectful; it was deeply upset, for a number of reasons. With its Muslim population already embittered over Iraq and the Islamophobia unleashed by the War on Terror, the last thing it wanted was a visitor who would alienate them even more and drive a wedge between its immigrant communities. They would be forced to be critical of the chief minister, to whom they could issue none of the usual courtesies, and this would in turn create a needless niggle in bilateral relations, to which, as the Indian economy boomed, they were paying unprecedented attention.

The Foreign Office therefore made urgent demarches with the Indian High Commission, asking it to convey their government’s anxieties to India, and their request that the chief minister of Gujarat decline the invitation from his supporters in the UK in the larger interest of bilateral relations.

The High Commission completely shared these concerns. Having been in the eye of the storm from 2002 – and knowing from its engagement with the diaspora just how deeply divisive this visit would be, and how toxic its fallout on bilateral relations – sent a strong recommendation to the Ministry of External Affairs that the chief minister be advised against the visit. It was told the external affairs minister agreed that it would be best for him not to go, but that his advice had been brushed aside by Modi.

Vajpayee overruled

Astonishingly, the High Commission was then told that, after his rebuff, the external affairs minister had gone to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who had concurred that the visit was undesirable and must be aborted, but that it was nevertheless going ahead. The word, sotto voce, was that other voices, which could not be ignored, had insisted that if Narendra Modi had received an invitation, he must be allowed to accept it. Not to do so, after the British interventions, would be an admission of weakness and guilt.

That is how a visit that both the British and the Indian governments absolutely did not want took place. Predictably, it was a deeply polarising event, Muslims and human rights protesting as he spoke to rapturous Gujarati Hindus.

As the British government had warned, it took no official cognizance of Modi’s presence, though it kept a beady eye on it. The Home Office issued a statement in which it said, with neither warmth nor respect:

“We are aware he’s visiting the UK. He is not visiting at Her Majesty’s government’s invitation nor does the government plan to have any contact with him when he’s here. We do understand the concerns expressed but there were no appropriate grounds to refuse Mr Modi a visa.”

Fear of arrest

Two days into the visit, the Foreign Office called the High Commission in a panic to report that they had learnt that, following a precedent set during a recent visit by Robert Mugabe, an attempt would be made to put Narendra Modi under citizen’s arrest, permitted by British law, while some lawyers were approaching a magistrate for a more conventional arrest warrant.

If either of these initiatives succeeded, it would be a disaster, because the British government would either have to break its own law to let Modi go, or stand back and let the law take its course, while the bilateral relationship went down the drain, which it would if an Indian chief minister was under arrest in London. The British pleaded that Modi be urged to take the next plane out, pre-empting a possible arrest.

British panic was shared in Delhi when this was reported to them, and the High Commission was asked to relay instructions from the highest possible level that he should leave immediately. This it did, only to be told, coolly, that the chief minister would do nothing of the sort. If he was arrested, he said, he would become a martyr in India; his political stock would soar. And that was that. It was clear that to him personal ambition mattered more than anything else. The destruction of a relationship between India and the United Kingdom, that was being so carefully resurrected, meant nothing.

Luckily, the application for the warrant failed in court, and the British threw an invisible cordon around Modi to prevent the feared citizen’s arrest, so he strutted and fretted on his London stage a few days more, and left on schedule, his departure warmly welcomed by both governments.

In 2005, discretion over valour

There was a strange sequel to this. A few months later, a parliamentary under secretary (equivalent to the now defunct rank of deputy minister in India) told the High Commission that he was going to India, and after his meetings in Delhi, would fly to Gujarat to see the Akshardham temple there, since so many of his constituents were Gujaratis. He then asked if the High Commission could very discreetly get him a meeting with Chief Minister Modi (whom by then the EU, at the instance of his government, had decided to ostracise). His constituents, he said, had made it clear that if he did not seek absolution, their votes would go elsewhere. Three other junior ministers, with similar constituency pressures, made the same journey to Canossa thereafter, leading to the suspicion that someone had suggested to the diaspora that British penance and penitence might be in order.

The coda came in March, 2005, when the chief minister planned another visit, again invited by Hindu groups. This time the British government was even more insistent, to the point of being adamant, that he should not come, not least because they feared that the application for a warrant, which had failed on a technicality in 2003, would succeed, setting off a horrible diplomatic crisis. The UPA government, not beholden to the voices which had prevailed in 2003, told Mr. Modi in very clear terms that he was on his own if he ignored the advice not to go. Very prudently, he called his trip off.

The Prime Minister’s visit to the United Kingdom now has set many records, all of them meticulously detailed. It is important, though, as he said, also to “keep the record straight” on the past.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission

  • shashank

    There can be all kinds of disagreements about Modi’s role in the riots but it is a bit much for UK or european union to have laws that could allow court proceedings against people holding constitutional positions in other countries .

  • Bhrat Daswani

    Poor article, your slant and spin is very obvious, how you choose to interpret actions speaks more about you than it does about Modi. Particularly I refer to the following: “It was clear that to him personal ambition mattered more than anything else. The destruction of a relationship between India and the United Kingdom, that was being so carefully resurrected, meant nothing.”
    To others his action and cool dismissal of the Biritsh Threat shows that he has enornous respect for the office his occupied and being an Indian dignitary. It also shows he respects the invititation from the diaspora, putting aside his wellbeing and safety for righteousness and honour.
    It would have been easy for Modi to abandon his trip considering the threat to his safety and blame the British for poor treatment and disrespect and use that for political leverage. It shows Modi can lead without being coerced by others, other people of less resolve such as the author of this article would have bent to all the pressure with bowed head.
    Running away is more ampt for people belonging and showing support to congress and then making excuses for it.
    Modi isn’t like that he comfronts obsticles, he does not run away from them. If you want to be a leader you have to be able to call a bluff and risk personal safety for what you believe is right.

    • Arun Patil

      Well, brave Mr. Modi decided not to make the visit in 2005, because he knew very well, that UPA would have been happy to have him incarcerated in a UK for some time :) He is an opportunist and a narcissist and can go to any level to prove himself to be a great leader, even at the cost of country’s interest. Having such a self centered person as a prime minister is certainly a problematic situation for all of us.

      • ProgressForIndia

        The predatory Congress Party kleptocracy which has lorded over India for over half a century is the real problem for India. Anyone who dares to stand up to the multi-decadal Congress kleptocracy is quickly labeled and targeted for destruction by them. It’s no different than the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, which used its cronies to throw out the elected Prime Minister Morsy and prosecute him with death penalty – and same regime did so on pretext of “protecting minorities”.

      • FijiIndian Get Vadra

        “Having such a self centered person as a prime minister is certainly a problematic situation for all of us.”. No it is problematic for Congress and its chamchas. Proudly BJP and Modi bhakt

      • anandashtekar

        The article points out specifically that Modi mentioned his visit to UK in 2003 and he deliberately concealed the facts about cancellation of his visit in 2005. Your assessment and characterization of a person who chairs the highest executive post seems to be right and appropriate.

    • disqus_tLaLiJV6u8

      I think a person in the high commission knows what went on, the writer was directly involved in the affair.

      • Bhrat Daswani

        That’s faulty logic, how is he absolved from bias and alternative persception by being involved? If anything it means he would have more. He has an opinion and a stake but that does not make his assessment of modi’s personality true. All it shows is his perception which is biased as someone can interpret the same dam behaviour in another way as I showed!

    • Kulvanth Kaur

      You need to watch the famous interview where Modi is questioned very politely on Gujrat.. but cannot answer.. then seeks a glass of water,.. and then terminates the interview without answering.. I think I would NOt call that..facing pressure head on..would you!

    • Abhinav

      Haha, it’s hilarious how you mention Kejriwal with very little memory of his own struggles. Unlike, Mr.Modi, who had absolutely no safety problems to worry about aside from being tried under the British judicial system, Kejriwal actually went to jail without complaint. Mr. Modi wansn’t showing ‘righteousness and honour’, although his Bhakts would perceive it that way. He was putting India-British relations under incredible strain becuase of his own arrogance. If addressing his constituents was so important to him he could compromise national interest for it, maybe he could have gone to all those Muslim boroughs being torched and slaughtered, actually risking his life so he could show ‘righteousness and honour’

  • Bhrat Daswani

    “It was clear that to him personal ambition mattered more than anything else. The destruction of a relationship between India and the United Kingdom, that was being so carefully resurrected, meant nothing.”
    To others his action and cool dismissal of the Biritsh Threat shows that he has enornous respect for the office his occupied and being an Indian dignitary. It also shows he respects the invititation from the diaspora, putting aside his wellbeing and safety for righteousness and honour.
    It would have been easy for Modi to abandon his trip considering the threat to his safety and blame the British for poor treatment and disrespect and use that for political leverage. It shows Modi can lead without being coerced by others, other people of less resolve would have bent to all the pressure with bowed head.

    • RD

      “The UPA government, not beholden to the voices which had prevailed in
      2003, told Mr. Modi in very clear terms that he was on his own if he
      ignored the advice not to go. Very prudently, he called his trip off.”

      What happened here about not being coerced by others ?

  • sudhirb

    Wonder what the writer is trying to convey. ?

    • Dia B Tese

      The facts, not glossed over facts like the PM! šŸ˜€ Does this look like a warm welcome to you? It in fact was an ice cold acknowledgement from the Brits and a warm Gujju Hindu welcome (not even “Indian”).

  • Bharatiya

    Dear Satyabrata Pal

    Your Bias is very clear, from this article. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been cleared of all charges by the Supreme court of India. But to people like you that is insignificant of course. Indian laws are powerful, we have thrown 2G scam ministers in jail, we have had Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Jayalalitha thrown in jail. So dont come use your head to twist things and mislead the public.

    An Indian

    • Dia B Tese

      “Cleared of all charges by the Supreme Court of India”? Are you sure? Please get your facts straight and DO NOT spread false propaganda. Yes, we have thrown 2G scam ministers, JJayalithta, etc into jail, but it still escapes NModi! YOU don’t your cropped and twisted head to confuse the genernal public and mislead them.
      And I’m and Indian too! šŸ˜›

      • subramanian n

        yes indeed,he has been cleared just like anyone else who has been called not guilty by our courts.Your feelings are largely irrelevant in front of facts and there is nothing in common with jayalalitha in this case.

    • https://twitter.com/andrewvijay Andrew Vijay

      There is no misleading here. The witnesses’ murder just before the trial is the only way by which he escaped!

  • Aravindan Sekar

    Well written, but we Indians have one national disease called amnesia to be precise selective amnesia which every politician across all party have exploited successfully.

  • Subramaniam Narasimhan

    Will this diplomat suggest or handle the arrest of a Tony Blair next time when he is on our soil, for his act of perjury in the weapons of mass destruction case? Or at the very least refuse an Indian visa to him? If this sounds silly and sanctimonious so does the narration by this diplomat vis a vis ‘destruction of a relationship between India and the UK…’
    If England had wanted this destruction, we should have happily provided it with the same. May be, this diplomat would have had to go to a Timbuktu, which he would not have liked or worse, he would have had to go back to Chandni Chowk. Is it a wonder that we are still a non-entity internationally? This sad level of diplomacy speaks for itself.
    The Indian High Commission in London and the Foreign Ministry over here must have sounded a firm warning to England to not touch its democratically elected — it does not matter even if someone is appointed and not elected — leader on a visit at the invitation of a section of the public over there.
    Courts were still probing the riots at that time and it was only the congress-communist-media that had passed its own judgment on the then CM Mr. Modi. India should have been ready to snap its relationship with England. If it is not a British Telecom, another Siemens would have set up the networks; instead of the British Petroleum, another Petrobras would have set up the refineries.
    If Mr. Vajapayee had not been a ‘halwaee’ and stood firm on this issue his political stock would have risen enormously here. His dilly-dallying on the Modi matter, the Kandahar hijack and his going out of his way to help Rahul Gandhi at the Logan Airport tremendously lowered his stature and cast permanent doubts on his patriotism and core values he said he cherished but were not seen in practice.
    People who said that they would rather eat grass on their way to acquiring the bomb are more principled and patriotic in their own context than this man and his cohorts.
    Mr. Vajapayee simply let the patriotic Hindus down on these two issues. From then on, it was a downhill all the way for Mr. Vajapayee; even a 20% annual growth would not have helped him and his party in 2004.

  • anandashtekar

    The article reveals the true character of a politician who poses to be a statesman and world’s most popular icon.

  • Dr Robert K

    This writer, inspite of having been a high ranking official, is partisan. The facts of the case point to the extraordinary wisdom of Modi.

  • http://sky-properties.in Mayur Panghaal

    After the train burning incident,Modi paraded the bodies till 200 Kms away in Ahmedabad.59 bodies could not have moved more than 200 kilometres to Ahmedabad
    without the knowledge of the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary and the
    Director General of Police. Clearly, an intentional violation of
    procedure was done for the sole purpose of inflaming the passions of the
    people especially in view of the call for Gujarat bandh given by the
    political party which constituted the government in Gandhinagar. In
    violating a laid-down procedure, legal malice is established beyond
    doubt and when this legal malice has manifested itself into widespread
    violence resulting in massive carnage across the State, elements of
    criminal conspiracy are clearly established.
    Now its the turn of India to get a glimpse of Modi.Which it will…..and its already begun.

  • Sameer Gupta

    So Narendra Modi should have left UK to prove he cared for UK-India ties. Why doesn’t the same logic apply to the UK officials? The man was still a democratically elected chief minister and he did well as a CM. I would like to see how you will handle the position when a train compartments full of Hindus is burned alive and die a miserable deaths. Think about it for a moment before you jump on your keyboard to write a spiteful article for our elected PM.

  • Tom Babu

    I shared this article yesterday on Facebook and can’t seem to find it today…Check the share stats below the headline…Plenty on twitter and nothing on facebook…Is this a problem from your side or is facebook censoring for the government?

    • jyotex

      I shared it just now !! Hopefully it stays

    • https://twitter.com/andrewvijay Andrew Vijay

      Nope its just the bhakts in action. When lots of people report a content for abuse it gets blocked. The bhakts online team succeeded in it. But now the article has been reinstated!

  • Stuti Gujral

    He is not presenting facts, he is presenting his opinion of what motivated another man to act in a certain way. When he says, for example, that “It was clear to him personal ambition mattered more than anything else. The destruction of a relationship between India and United Kingdom, that was being so carefully resurrected, meant nothing”–that is his OPINION of another man’s state of mind. It cannot in any manner be construed as a FACT unless he has on his hands a confession to that effect from Mr. Modi.

    And while you are entitled to “believe” what you please about many things, you are not entitled to erase the distinction between those two things.

  • sg

    modi was just being gracious when he said that, we all know that the statement was be taken with a pinch of salt, as the anti national and the jehadis were putting pressure on the uk govt not to allow him to enter etc.

  • MP

    Did you notice the morphed picture of Modi. The portion of his lips in front of his tongue have been touched with pink, and the other part of his lips with white to match the color of his beard. Thus it appears that Models has long tongue protruding outside the his mouth giving a very sinister look of him. Thats the reason FB probably has blocked it, SC there is a deliberate attempt to malign him.

  • Shankar M

    Modi’s response to the journalist’s question was very simple and uncomplicated. But as a true diplomat you have tried to write a piece that does not go anywhere! It just is not ‘setting the record straight by you’! Modi did not claim to the journalist that his visit was a great one as you seem to allude and neither did he claim himself to be above all.

  • Raja A

    In a country like India, even Lord Rama was a polarizing figure. So is it surprising?

  • Raja

    In poor taste and shows your bias. You have not been able to Digest that in spite of diplomats like you; he has reached were he is today on his own. I am sure it hurts you and pain shows in the article.

  • Guru

    No, OPINION is not FACT. No matter how you spin it, or how you do your wordplay. FACT is TRUTH. It is just like describing a LIE as “TRUTH as he sees”.

  • Vrajesh Chokshi

    Don’t know why? But why everyone is targeting Modi! even though he has been cleared by Supereme Court, SIT, and also after being grilled by CBI for 9 hrs. We all have elected government, on the foreign soil and diplomatic issue we should support him , even though we might not have voted him, at a domestic level if he is wrong we all should oppose but if he is working for good lets all get together as an INDIAN ! Stop abusing freedom which our great country has showered upon us!

  • Abhay Sharma

    ā€œWe are aware heā€™s visiting the UK. He is not visiting at Her Majestyā€™s governmentā€™s invitation nor does the government plan to have any contact with him when heā€™s here. We do understand the concerns expressed but there were no appropriate grounds to refuse Mr Modi a visa.ā€
    Its fine, for them their vote bank was important and they were hesitant to welcome him. They didn’t have any ground to refuse Mr. Modi’s visa as mentioned. What Modi said is a simple fact that he visited UK in 2003 and got welcomed here (of course by the people who invited him). And as far as 2002 riots is concerned, there are different theories available. And when people compare 1984 and 2002, I would like to remind them many big leaders from Congress were found guilty and even jailed for some time but I never heard that any big leader was found guilty in 2002. So I would like to go with report of SIT since we should respect our Supreme Court.
    But there’s one thing about our secular media, some people who started the riots burnt a train they were called extremists and when some more people in anger killed some others they were labeled as ‘Modi’s Men’. HatsOffToMedia and media still blames Modi for the Riots even after SIT report and hence dis-respecting the Supreme Court of India.
    As far as Writer is concerned, I don’t know what writer wants to convey or may be he’s just retired and was getting bored and he got something from Modi’s speech to write and sell. Kudos.

    And to all anti modi people, don’t dwell in the past of 2002, he’s our PM whether you like it or not. It will be good if you criticize him about any present logical scenario not like always visiting foreign countries. He’s visiting there for a purpose not for holidays and every visit is being telecast by our news channels.

  • Stuti Gujral

    Ummmm…”night will come” after day is an opinion based on facts, i.e. empirical data available to all of mankind on a daily basis and over some millennia. These facts are not capable of any other explanation.

    Not the case with respect to the facts presented in this article. The series of facts underlined in this article are benign. They are inculpatory only if read with the motives ascribed by the author to Modi. However, the author is not in a position to speak about Modi’s motives as fact, because he has no source of knowledge for the same. He is surmising, and while he is entitled to do so as an individual, it shouldn’t be published by a media agency because media agencies should–as a matter of principle and standard–report facts, and not surmises.

    If a series of facts are so connected to one another that they are capable of more than one explanation, I believe that it is completely irresponsible for a media organization to publish them in a manner that favours one explanation over another, especially an explanation that tends to lower a person in the estimation of others.

    • SacchaDesi

      Did you realise the writer is an ex diplomat who was personally seeing some of the things happening and participating in them in official capacity?

      I would trust his opinion on the matter more than someone who only suddenly put on indian underwear when it comes to criticising Modi, but criticising anyone else is fair game.

      • Stuti Gujral

        Ex-diplomats should be believed outright because they are immune from wrongdoing, making mistakes, crossing the line…? Maybe those credentials mean something to you, they mean very little to me.

        As you say, he only saw “some of the things happening”–he should have restrained himself and not added another ten that he did not see happening, to buttress his point. If I consider from this article only the things that he was party to, it is possible to reach more than one conclusion about why Modi acted in a certain way. And I say that in these circumstances, it is irresponsible for the Wire to publish a particular conclusion.

        “Someone who only suddenly put on indian underwear when it comes to criticising Modi” — I don’t know what kind of company you keep or what underwear you have a preference for sir, but I think it might be preferable if we restrict this conversation to the point in issue, rather than getting personal. You don’t know me, and I’d suggest you don’t jump the gun about why I do or say what I do.

        I look forward to criticism about Modi and just about every other politician in this country, but I believe we are not getting any of that from the media these days. The press has divided itself into two camps–the Modi sycophants, and the Modi haters. This has led to imbalanced reporting on both sides, which is scary and alarming. The role of responsible media is not to air opinions (or to “editorialise” as the Wire says), it’s to report facts in a balanced manner. There is nothing balanced about this report.

  • Stuti Gujral

    I can explain this even further. It is possible that if this article had been restricted only to a statement of the facts that it contains, you would have formed the same opinion as the author as to Modi’s motives. On the other hand–I, or someone else, would have found that the facts lend themselves to different motives. In either case, we are entitled to reach our individual conclusions and obligated to respect the other for reaching his/hers.

    But for a media agency to present the facts as capable of a particular explanation alone, that shows it in poor light, as biased and prejudiced. I find it especially remarkable when this is done by a media house set up ostensibly to answer the charge of “editorializing” of Indian media.

  • Raghunathan T.E.

    Very rightly said

  • Anil Merani

    haha and de same brits now layed out the red carpet