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Gandhi, Modi and the politics in London celebrating the 'unwelcome'

October 06, 2014 09:16 IST
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The Gandhi statue to be unveiled in Parliament Square will be his second in London. There is another one at the city's Tavistock Square. Aditi Phadnis reports

Two Indian men, derided, despised and generally made to feel unwelcome in Britain, will be feted and celebrated in London next year.

The British are falling over themselves to secure approval of the Prime Minister's Office for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the UK.

The date they are looking for is January 30, the day Mahatma Gandhi was martyred 66 years ago.

The occasion is the unveiling of a statue of the Mahatma -- whom former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had once mockingly described as a half-naked fakir -- at prestigious Parliament Square, outside the Palace of Westminster.

Though the plans to put up Gandhi's statue were announced by UK chancellor George Osborne and foreign secretary William Hague some time ago, the date is crucial.

The UK is to have elections in May 2015 and the statue will come in handy to move persons of Indian origin to vote for the party trying hard to get it installed. And, if the man to unveil the statue is Modi, politicians reckon, the party will be a shoo-in for victory.

Osborne, when he announced the plan to put up a statue, the second in London -- there is already a bust of Gandhi's at London's Tavistock Square -- said: "As the father of the largest democracy in the world, it is time Gandhi took his place in front of the mother of Parliaments. He is a figure of inspiration, not just in Britain and India but around the world."

Gandhi will be sharing the space with Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela, the South African leaders who were on two sides of the segregation fence, as well as Churchill and many others. There are only a handful of foreigners whose statues have been erected at Parliament Square, one of the most prized parks in London. The statue has been designed and executed by Philip Jackson, a British sculptor.

For Modi, too, the unveiling will be important. Riding on the back of the offer are the votes of 400,000 British Gujaratis, who live in and around London. Gujaratis are the second-largest section of the Indian immigrant population in Britain.

It was the Labour Party that froze relations with Modi in the wake of the Gujarat riots in 2002, in which several British Gujaratis died, including former Indian MP Ehsan Jafri (who became a British citizen and whose wife, Zakia, led a relentless battle against the state government, charging it and the chief minister with having reneged on responsibility in controlling the riots).

Although Britain resumed relations with Modi later, with High Commissioner James Bevan meeting him in 2013, there continues to be a degree of awkwardness in dealing with him. Members of Parliament there believe that feeling will be washed away by the single act of inviting him to unveil Gandhi's statue.

The Indian government is still turning the offer over in its mind.

The reason: The January 26 Republic Day festivities will barely have ended when it would be time for Modi to travel to London. But, whatever the timing, there is no denying that inauguration of Gandhi's statue by Modi will be a moment of quiet satisfaction for much of India.

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