Our routine hypocrisies are the most revealing. It is the everyday lies we tell ourselves and others that give the truth away. Which is why the next few days in Europe will be so telling. On Friday, India’s newish prime minister, Narendra Modi, touches down in Paris. There, a treat awaits: President François Hollande will take him on a romantic boat ride along the Seine, after which the two men hope to cut a few big deals.
Next on Modi’s itinerary is Angela Merkel. As you might have guessed, the German chancellor isn’t offering any such soft-focus photo-ops to her Indian counterpart. Still, she is giving him star treatment: the two leaders will jointly open Hanover’s enormous trade fair.
While all this is going on, the new Syriza-led government of cash-starved Greecewill be scrabbling for every last cent to repay the next €450m (£330m) instalment of the country’s loan from the IMF. To get the money together, Athens has been ransacking its health budget and the reserves of its public utilities. Syriza MPs I’ve spoken to are confident they’ll make their IMF deadline; what they can’t promise is having money left over to pay next month’s wages and pensions of Greece’s public servants. Then, at almost the same time Modi will be patrolling the stalls of Hanover, the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, will be getting roughed up in Brussels.
This is an everyday tale of two freshly minted governments getting two very different treatments from the heart of Europe. For Modi, the red carpet. For the Greeks, a carpeting. They get a lecturing from the so-called Socialists of France about prudence, while Varoufakis has been labelled by his German counterpart as “foolishly naive”. And they will certainly not be allowed to deviate from the calamitous austerity imposed upon them.
So what, you may say. Modi is offering slow-growth Europe access to a market of over a billion people, while the Greeks come bearing only a huge debt. One is greeted with a hug, the other deserves a punch. QED. Make mine a giant pint of yawn.
But this isn’t only about finances. To understand what’s wrong with this picture, you have to study the details. Let’s start with Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP. The man who was chief minister of the state of Gujarat at the time of a massacre of Muslims that saw between 1,000 and 2,000 men, women and children murdered. The minimum charge against Modi, which he has never satisfactorily answered, is that he both encouraged the pogrom of 2002 then did nothing to stop it. Police officers are said to have told victims: “We have no orders to save you.”
Time and power wash away most sins and both have worked in Modi’s favour. Except that within a year of taking power, he is showing the same authoritarianism that marked his regime in Gujarat. His government has attacked Greenpeace, Action Aid, Amnesty International and other international NGOs as being “anti-development”. Vociferous critics and campaign groups are liable to go on a blacklist, and be blocked from receiving any foreign funding – even while their leader goes abroad touting for international investment.
And sometimes the tactics are even more blunt. Near the start of this year a Greenpeace activist, Priya Pillai, was asked to Westminster to address MPs on the effect of coal-mining on villagers. She checked in at Delhi airport, cleared security and had her boarding pass. Then, at the last minute, Indian officials told her she could not board the flight. They could not tell her why, apart from that the government of India forbade her to leave the country.
Pillai had done nothing wrong – apart from campaign against forest-destroying, community-displacing, environment-wrecking coal mines. That was enough to put her on the new regime’s blacklist. Members of Modi’s party called her “anti-national”. Journalists friendly to the government began hounding her – even while her father lay dying in hospital after an accident. Then, two months later, the Delhi high court ruled she should never have been blocked. By then, of course, the signal had been sent to all other critics of the new rulers of the world’s largest democracy: do not get in our way. Talking to me this weekend, Pillai summed up how she had broken Modi’s law. “My only offence is that I have an opinion that doesn’t coincide with yours. I have a dream of development that is different from yours.”
This is a classic example of the Modi operandi. While spouting the poisonous rhetoric of Hindu extremism, he has given big business whatever they want and kicked their opponents out of the way. Ruling Gujarat, he chucked prize public land, soft loans (at 0.1% interest) and favours at major companies. In return, they have funded and supported him all the way to Delhi. You want to see what business support looks like? Forget letters to the Telegraph; two months ago, Modi’s party held a special ceremony for over 100 business leaders – from Lufthansa, AT&T, bankers – who joined the BJP en masse.
Meanwhile, supposedly independent organisations involved in everything from historical research to film censorship have been stuffed with acolytes of the Hindu right, however unqualified. Civil-society critics in India now talk of a “shrinking of democratic space”: their freedom of expression remains, but they know the consequences if they use it.
Modi is a democratically elected authoritarian, but he is one with whom Merkel and Hollande are happy to do business. Delhi has already signed defence deals with Europe; and more will doubtless be written over the next few days. Athens, on the other hand, is being starved even of liquidity. If things carry on like this then, by the end of this summer, Syriza will either take Greece out of the euro or – however large its democratic mandate – it will be forced to chuck its electoral promises and capitulate.
What this humdrum week in the life of Europe shows you then is that its leaders can only handle a very limited democracy. For as long as I can remember, politicians from Jacques Delors to Gordon Brown have promised a “social Europe”, one that manages market forces. That is not the show you’ll get this week.
Instead, what will be celebrated is a democracy that kisses up to capital, while locking away its critics. One that uses state power to direct assets and money to the rich. Hollande and Merkel couldn’t make the case for Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen better if they tried.