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Back in from the cold

Britain is cash-strapped and so it will do business with even someone like Modi, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2012 22:45 IST

Here are two stories about Britain’s relations with India, both from the past month. One has been rinsed in the news cycle dozens of times; the other barely got a once-over. Yet it’s the obscure story that matters — and that should alarm anyone who cares how this country behaves abroad.

Like I say, you’ll know the first one, about Britain scrapping aid to India. Journalists have had plenty of time to chew over the pros and cons: Delhi’s space programme versus the fact that India is home to more poor people than all of Africa; I’d go on but you probably know all the words to this tune better than me. What comes up rather less often is that the amount given away is just “peanuts”, as India’s former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee used to say. At £280m a year, Whitehall’s aid comes to 0.03% of India’s annual income. Whatever the rights and wrongs, this issue is much more about the one-time Empire fallen on hard times, than its former colony.

Yet just last month dropped a genuinely surprising bit of news, far more suggestive of how David Cameron wants to do business with the rest of the world.

The foreign office despatched its man in India to Gujarat, to meet the western state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider some of the other names freely used by enemies of the politician: India’s Hitler, its Milosevic, its Pol Pot. Or remember this: for the past decade, Britain has boycotted the Hindu extremist for presiding over one of the worst massacres of Muslims independent India has ever seen.

At the time of the massacre in 2002, Modi was the head of the local government, as he is now. At the very least, he did nothing to stop the bloodshed: “A modern-day Nero” in the words of the Supreme Court. But he also went on TV at the time to describe the murders as effectively brought on Muslims by themselves, and later described the refugee camps that afterwards housed thousands of homeless Muslims as “baby-making factories”. A court-appointed senior lawyer recommended that the chief minister be prosecuted for hate-mongering.

Beyond all of that is the allegation, still being pressed by campaigners in court, that Modi actually ordered his police officers to allow the genocide to take place.

Ever since, Modi has been persona non grata in the West. The US refuses him visas; European diplomats will not shake his hand. Yet last month, for no obvious reason, the British government broke ranks and brought him in from the cold. For Modi, who contests state elections next month and wants a shot at running for prime minister in 2014, this was a massive boost. No sooner had he got the news than he convened a rally to announce that the British had rehabilitated him.

Ask government officials why, and you’re given the same list of reasons: there are tens of thousands of Gujaratis now in Britain, there are British businesses already trading in Modi’s state, and that the state is booming. Almost by rote, they’ll chuck in the fact that London still wants justice for the three Britons killed in 2002.

So forget about questions of aid; the Modi case really tells you how Cameron wants to get on with the rest of the world. Sure, he will grandstand about human rights, but in modern, cash-strapped Britain, he’ll do business with anyone — even if they have presided over a pogrom.

The Guardian