Boris Johnson is a patsy for populist leaders – as his India visit shows

Show caption ‘All heads of government use foreign visits to burnish their images, but Johnson feeds off the charisma of populist leaders to an unusual degree.’ Boris Johnson with Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, 22 April 2022. Photograph: Sondeep Shankar/Pacific Press/REX/Shutterstock Opinion Boris Johnson is a patsy for populist leaders – as his India visit shows Mukul Kesavan By posing in a digger just after Muslim properties had been razed, Johnson is enabling Modi’s nationalist policies Mon 25 Apr 2022 14.03 BST Share on Facebook

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Boris Johnson belongs in a Bombay film. In a photo from his recent India visit he’s pictured leaning out of the cab of a yellow excavator in a JCB factory with all the swagger of Shammi Kapoor hanging out of a moving train in the 1962 classic film Professor. There’s the same pudgy flair, the same willingness to be ridiculous in the cause of charm, and the same blithe disregard for time and place.

The day before Johnson landed in Ahmedabad, seven of these JCB diggers had been used to raze Muslim shops and homes, and the gate of a mosque in New Dehli’s Jahangirpuri area, in defiance of a supreme court stay on demolition. The municipality that ordered the demolitions was run by the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), and the brazen disregard of the apex court’s orders seemed almost staged for television.

Johnson’s schedulers should have known better. Even if they were ambushed by the New Delhi demolitions that happened the day before he arrived, they should have known that bulldozing Muslim homes and livelihoods had become government policy in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh weeks before his visit. Demolition had become a form of violent gaslighting: regular communal violence instigated by anti-Muslim mobs is followed by the official targeted demolition of allegedly illegal Muslim property as punishment, turning victims into perpetrators. There was every incentive for the BJP to let Johnson do a commercial for the diggers that had just been used to show Muslims their place in Modi’s India, but why would Johnson play along?

Like the hero in a vintage Hindi film, Johnson thinks of other countries as outdoor locations where he can play at being a statesman, not as real places with politics of their own. Just as Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore could move from Tower Bridge in London to tulip gardens to the Pont des Arts in Paris in the space of a single song, Johnson doesn’t really care if the foreign tableaux he visits feature an embattled hero such as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a malevolent huckster like Donald Trump or a Muslim-baiting nationalist like Modi. He’s happy to shimmy for the cameras as long as the other face in the frame is a marquee name. All heads of government use foreign visits to burnish their images, but Johnson feeds off the charisma of populist leaders to an unusual degree.

This instinct to inflate himself by sidling up to powerful men was on full display in India. Asked by journalists if he would raise the demolition controversy with Modi, he produced an equivocal answer that ended with the all-purifying invocation of India’s status as the world’s largest democracy. It’s understandable that a British prime minister looking for a trade deal and India’s support in Ukraine would avoid confrontation. But there is a line between diplomatic deflection and cheerleading, and Johnson crosses it every time because his super power is ingratiation.

It would be a mistake, though, to make British foreign policy an extension of Johnson’s character; that inverts the relationship. Johnson is Britain’s prime minister because he embodies the post-imperial enabler role that Britain has adopted as its own on the world stage over the past 25 years. It was Tony Blair, a prime minister credited with more gravitas than Johnson, who invented that role by studiously playing sidekick to George Bush. In a multipolar world, where Britain, detached from the EU, sees being Singapore-on-Thames as the summit of its ambition, opportunities to play second or even third fiddle abound. In this world, Johnson is the perfect prime minister.

In his book, Butler to the World, Oliver Bullough explained how Britain, post-Suez, made up for the loss of imperial power by using its financial and legal infrastructure to make itself the offshoring capital of the world, the launderer of the world’s dirty money. Johnson’s diplomacy reproduces this butler role in the realm of geopolitics. Its hallmark is the ability to follow the lead of the US regardless of consequence. This produces rewards such as the Aukus security pact; it also produces a necessary blindness to the politics of countries outside western alliances. Johnson’s inability to see that he was legitimising majoritarian violence in India with his photo ops and glib exonerations is a function of the enabler’s lack of agency. Atop the digger, he was doing no more than playing the role that Britain had made its own: “an attendant lord, one that will do, to swell a progress, start a scene or two”.

Mukul Kesavan is an essayist and author who teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi