Spectator Coffee House
Nearly 50 years ago, soon after I first came to this country, my landlady, upset I was reading the Guardian and not her favourite newspaper the Daily Telegraph, said, ‘You must not believe Labour propaganda that they gave India freedom. Churchill would have done the same had he won the 1945 election.’ Had my landlady been alive and witnessed how Narendra Modi has been received by David Cameron, culminating in yesterday’s love fest at Wembley, she would have required little convincing that her beloved party is no longer a pariah for Indians in this country. For all the talk of developing ties with India to attract investments and create jobs, the most interesting aspect of Team UK-Team India bonding, to use Cameron’s favourite phrase, is how the Prime Minister has achieved what a lot of Conservative leaders have long desired: a take-over of Labour’s Indian estate.
Cameron has been helped by the fact that Labour has long neglected the estate. Jeremy Corbyn emphasised this by deciding he had better things to do than listen to Modi address the Houses of Parliament. This merely marked the final ‘Dear Narendra’ letter from Labour to India, the breach in the relationship going back to 1997, the year Tony Blair came to power. Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, accompanied the Queen to India to mark India’s 50th birthday as a free country. This should have been the high point of the relationship. Instead, Cook so infuriated the Indians by promising Pakistan that he would discuss the Kashmir issue with India, that the Indian Prime Minister called Britain a third-rate nation from which India needed no advice. Meanwhile, the Indians cancelled a speech the Queen was supposed to make and the Times lectured India that it had forgotten how to treat guests with civility.
It has been fascinating to watch how often during this visit Indian television has gone back to 1997 to emphasise the contrast with how Modi has been received. The Indian analysis of why Labour has fallen out of love with India is that it has found a new, more important, electoral mistress: Muslims from Mirpur in Pakistan Kashmir who form a significant number in many Labour-held seats. These Kashmiri Muslims see India as a brutal colonial power illegitimately holding on to a part of Kashmir. In Wembley’s Olympic Way yesterday, a small group from Mirpur held up a banner to remind the world of Indian atrocities. It read: 80,000 murders in Kashmir. Cameron would not have seen it and even if he had it would not have mattered, for it is clear he and his advisers have long concluded there is no way the Tories can woo these Mirpuris. Far better to concentrate on the well-off Indians. Many of them may be Hindus but they are going to be Tory Hindus. In days gone by, the Tories might have preferred Muslims, and hated the Hindus, but not any longer.
Diehard Conservatives may baulk at the manner in which Cameron wooed this new electorate. For a British Prime Minister to host a visiting Prime Minister in a stadium was unusual enough, but to act as a warm-up for the visitor and even speak a few words of Gujarati, the mother tongue of the visiting leader, gave the impression that Cameron was not so much being a genial host as very nearly prostrating himself in front of his guest. And this despite the fact that most of the 60,000 Indians present made it very clear that they saw themselves as Indian first, British second.
And the venue chosen could not have been more ironic given that Wembley is the home of the English national game, and the Norman Tebbit immigrant test lays down that an immigrant proves his loyalty by supporting British sporting teams. But here Cameron can claim that the modern Indian relationship with Britain is no different to that of British Jews who can be British and yet loyal to Israel. And Cameron can also point to the fact that in decoupling Indians from Labour, he is following in the footsteps of his mentor Mrs Thatcher who convinced British Jews that Labour was not their natural home.