India’s Narendra Modi just faced his toughest press conference yet—courtesy of the British media

Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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The feisty British media has just subjected Narendra Modi to what was perhaps his toughest press conference since becoming India’s prime minister in May last year.

Hours after he landed in London, at a joint press conference with his British counterpart David Cameron on Nov. 12, Modi—who hasn’t held a proper presser in India yet—was forced to face a couple of difficult questions.

The first came from the BBC, which after asking Cameron why it took Modi so long to make a state visit, simply posed: “Prime minister Modi, India is becoming an increasingly intolerant place. Why?”

Modi, speaking in Hindi, gave an expansive reply.

Bharat, yeh Buddha ki dharti hai. Bharat, yeh Gandhi ki dharti hai. Aur iss liye hamare sanskaaron mein ek baat hamaari ragon mein hai, ki samaaj ke moolbhoot moolyon ke khilaaf kisi bhi baat ko Bharat sweekar nahi karta hai. Aur isi liye, Hindustan ke kisi bhi kone mein koi bhi ghatna ghate, Bharat ke liye woh ghatna ek ho, ya do ho, ya teen ho, sawa sau crore ke desh mein ek ghatna ka mahatwa hai ki nahi hai, ye hamare liye mayna nahi rakhta hai. Hamare liye har ghatna gambheer hoti hai, hum isko kisi bhi halat mein tolerate nahi karte hain, kaanoon kathorta se karyavaahi karta hai aur karega. Aur Bharat ek vibrant democracy hai jo samvidhaan ke tehet samanya se samanya naagrik ki… ke jeewan ko har prakaar ki suraksha, uske vichaaron ki raksha usse pratibadhya hai. Aur iss kaam pe hum committed hain.

Translation: India is the land of Buddha, India is the land of Gandhi. And that is why it is in our values that whenever someone goes against the fundamental beliefs of the society, India will not accept it. That is why any incident in any corner of India—whether is it one incident, two or three—in a nation of 125 crore Indians, whether one incident is important or not, that does not matter to us. Every incident is grave for us. We do not tolerate it under any circumstances. The law takes strict action against this and it will continue to do so. And India is a vibrant democracy with a constitution that gives even the most ordinary citizen security of every kind, and is committed to protecting their thoughts. And we are committed to this.

After a straightjacketed question by a member of the Indian press on terrorism, the Guardian newspaper followed up with another difficult question. But first, it asked Cameron how he felt about inviting Modi to the UK.

“Prime minister Cameron, can I ask you how comfortable do you feel welcoming prime minister Modi to this country given that for the first two years of your premiership he was not permitted to visit this country because of his record as chief minister of Gujarat?” the Guardian’s correspondent asked, apart from another question on the UK and the European Union (EU).

Then, after also questioning Modi on the UK and the EU, the British newspaper asked Modi the following:

And also prime minister Modi can I ask you, tomorrow night you will obviously have a rapturous reception at Wembley Stadium. There are a number of protesters out today who are saying, and I am wondering what you say to them, that given your record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, you do not deserve the respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy?

Deftly, Cameron replied:

I am pleased to welcome prime minister Modi here. He comes with an enormous mandate from the people of India who made him prime minister with a record and historic majority. As for what happened in the past, there were legal proceedings that were also, as my colleague Priti Patel said earlier today, representations from the British government at the time. We are now discussing the future partnership between Britain and India. Both of us backed by our countries for this Parliament to work together to strengthen the partnership that we have.

When it was his turn, the Indian prime minister paused briefly, before answering:

Ek toh, keep the record straight, iske liye main aapko jaankaari dun, main 2003 mein yahan aaya tha aur bohot hi swagat samman maine uss samay bhi yahan karyakramon mein bhagya liya tha. UK ne kabhi bhi mujhe yahan aane par roka nahi hai, kabhi koi pratibandh lagaya nahi hai. Mere samay aabhaav ke kaaran main nahi aa paya woh alag baat hai. Toh ye galat perception hai, usko correct kar lijiye.

Translation: Firstly, to set the record straight, I want to inform you that I had come to the UK in 2003 and was welcomed and respected… and attended events here. The UK has never stopped me from coming here. There was no restriction ever. I could not come due to time constraints, and that’s a different thing. So you have wrong perception, please correct it.

The Guardian, of course, has published a handful of pieces critical of Modi and his record, preceding the prime minister’s arrival in the UK. On Nov. 09, author Pankaj Mishra unflatteringly described him as an “…opportune manipulator of mass disaffection with uneven and unstable growth, who distracts a fearful and atomised citizenry with the demonisation of minorities, scapegoating of ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan and ‘rootless’ people, and promises of ‘development’, while facilitating crony capitalism.”

The final question came from another member of the Indian press who probed Modi about how he expects the UK to help India given the country’s current financial and social conditions.

It has been a difficult few weeks for the Indian prime minister—after the continuing outrage over intolerance and his party’s defeat in Bihar—and the British press isn’t making it any easier.

Here’s the full video of the press conference: