Friday, Aug 12, 2022

Two-Day India Visit Was A Reprieve For Boris Johnson From Political Problems At Home

While Johnson is a strong right-wing nationalist leader like Modi and the main architect of Brexit, his political management remains questionable.

Boris Johnson in India.
Boris Johnson in India. AP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s two-day India trip was a pleasant diversion from his political woes back home in England. He clearly enjoyed his trip and appreciated the grand welcome laid out for him in Gujarat.

At the joint news conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he gushed about his trip to "Narendra’s" home state, where he saw banners and posters of welcome all around Ahmedabad. He admitted he felt like cricketing heart-throb Sachin Tendulkar and film star Amitabh Bachchan -- two men loved by Indians. The Gujarat government went out of its way to ensure that Johnson felt especially loved. After all, he would refer to himself in the past as India’s son-in-law as his first wife was a British Indian. He insisted on addressing the  Prime Minister by his first name to drive home his personal equation with the Indian leader, reminding us of the time when Modi did a similar stunt by calling Barak Obama the visiting former US president as "Barak".

The bonhomie between Johnson and Modi was apparent during the visit. And yes, there are several similarities between them. Both are strong leaders, right-wing nationalist leaders. But while Modi’s ability to win elections makes and be the undisputed leader of the BJP is well entrenched and the envy of many world leaders, Johnson is in deep trouble. Many within his Conservative party are calling for his resignation. Johnson’s reputation as well as his popularity has plummeted sharply in recent weeks. Critics accuse him of misleading Parliament and trying to lie through his teeth to defend his unbecoming action.

 This is all related to his brazen flouting of nationwide lockdown rules and partying with his aides at 10, Downing Street his official residence while everyone else had been asked to stay indoors and not socialise to stop the spread of the deadly Delta variant of the pandemic. This has shocked and angered the British public bound to their homes by government orders while their leader who had ordered them to stay home for public good refused to comply. He has already been fined by the British police for not following his own orders. A Parliamentary panel will investigate the incident.

 Johnson was the chief architect of the Brexit referendum, which led Britain to break ties with the European Union. Johnson is a good orator and was able to convince the public that by breaking free of the EU, Britain would recapture its former glory and usher in an era of progress for the UK. This version forwarded by Johnson and others who wanted Britain to quit the EU was enthusiastically embraced by the rural non-college educated sections of the British population. This was much like the supporter base of former US President Donald Trump.

 One reason for the popularity of Brexit was because as a member of the EU, the UK had to accommodate its quota of refugees like every member of the European Union. However, Johnson and other pro Brexit enthusiasts are reluctant to take in immigrants as they fear job loss and eating into the country’s social security net. Immigrants are not welcome and India has long been struggling to get the visa regime liberalised to accommodate more Indians. During the Brexit campaign, Johnson spoke of opening up immigration from India and other Commonwealth nations once the movement of workers from  Europe stopped. Many British Indians voted for Brexit because of this promise. But so far nothing has happened. The fear of foreign immigrants is much like Modi and the BJP’s paranoia over alleged illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, which has paid rich dividends for the BJP in the elections.

Like other right-wing world leaders, Johnson has little respect for human rights. He is tone-deaf as well. Despite the huge outcry in India over the government’s latest bid to bulldoze homes of the poor in areas like Jahangirpuri in the national capital and in several  BJP ruled states across India. Most of the people affected are Muslims and the bulldozer has become the symbol of repression and ruthless state power in India.

Johnson and his advisers could not be unaware of what was happening. Yet during his visit to Gujarat, the visiting dignitary went to a  JCB bulldozer factory owned by a donor to the Conservative party in Britain. He happily posed for photographs with the bulldozer. Amnesty International slammed Johnson for the visit to the factory at a time when this led to suffering among the poor. But this is very much Johnson’s style. He has little regard for human rights, except when it comes to Russian action in Ukraine. 

Though this was Boris Johnson’s first visit to India as PM, he is one of the few British political leaders of his party that understands this country. He has been here on numerous occasions as a private citizen. Many of his supporters are the rich British Indians from Gujarat, who are also admirers of Narendra Modi. Preeti Patel, a self-professed admirer of the Indian PM is in Johnson’s cabinet. Indian businessmen like Lakshmi Mittal are also friends and admirers of Johnson and have contributed generously to funding Johnson’s election campaign.  Johnson's cabinet has three senior British Indians including the Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer and Alok Sharma.

Johnson and his team have been building up the India visit for weeks and have projected it as a massive success. A free trade agreement could be signed and sealed by October. However, the question remains if Boris Johnson will continue to be Britain’s PM.