By Swapan Dasgupta
For historical and other reasons, London has traditionally been a vibrant centre for 'causes'. These range in intensity from support for the Palestinian 'struggle' - the undeniable number one 'cause' that is the equivalent of what the Anti-Apartheid movement was in the 1970s and 1980s - to sectional support for Khalistan among a minority of Sikhs preoccupied with the politics of the local gurdwara.
The net result of this explosion of 'causes' is that there is considerable attention to foreign news in the British media, not least radio and television. Some of this stems from the lingering legacy of the British Empire, whose memorabilia still occupy a large part of the London landscape and whose peoples now form a significant part of its population. But even beyond the erstwhile Empire, the United Kingdom's importance as a trading nation has made foreign news an economic necessity.
The issue is not so much the importance that is accorded to having an international outlook but the nature of the perceptions. The grainy, black-and-white Pathé News footage now available on YouTube, for example, reveals the huge curiosity that accompanied Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Britain for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931. That curiosity and the bewilderment over his clothes, his diet and his wily negotiating stand were factors that ensured a relatively benign perception of the Indian nationalist movement. This was equally true for Nelson Mandela. The legend surrounding the man incarcerated for so long by the South African State ensured that apartheid never secured the full-throated endorsement of fellow-whites in Britain.
Both Gandhi and Mandela were unintended beneficiaries of a natural tendency to see happenings in foreign lands as a tussle between the good and the bad. Neither the Indian nor the South African icon could ever be painted as baddies. By an over-simplistic extrapolation, this meant that India's freedom movement and the war against white racist rule in South Africa were never subjected to unqualified denunciations. At best, the sceptics raised the question: are these good men leading armies of individuals who are not equally blessed?
In today's more complicated but far more inter-connected world, the hierarchy in the Chamber of Horrors is often determined by the media. There are some all-time hate figures: among African leaders, it used to be the Ugandan Idi Amin and now it is the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe whose sweeping victory in the 1979, post-Lancaster-House election created an acute bout of anxiety in London's Clubland. In Europe, the hate-list is, quite predictably, headed by Russia's no-nonsense leader, Vladimir Putin, who is charged with being an authoritarian in the mould of his predecessors in the Kremlin. No one has actually suggested with any measure of seriousness that the post-Ukraine sanctions against Russia will propel a 'regime change' - that demand is reserved exclusively for the hapless Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, waging his clumsy war against the Islamic State - but it has always been made clear that the ex-KGB strongman is not quite kosher. Also failing the British media's kosher test is Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Likud party. They are debunked quite spiritedly because of their stubborn unwillingness to tailor policies to suit the Made in Britain liberal consensus.
One of the newest entrants into the ranks of the politically unacceptable is Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) coasted to a comfortable victory in last week's general election. It was described by most media commentators as a "shock" victory. The question is: shocking for whom? Judging from the footage of the celebrations in Istanbul and the categorical nature of the mandate, it would seem that most Turkish citizens - with the exception of the Kurdish minority that voted differently - were exasperated by the drift that had resulted from the fractured mandate of the June 2015 election, and re-elected Erdogan to restore stability and give a definite direction to the country. Using Indian analogies, the outcome in Turkey was akin, in different ways, to the victory of Indira Gandhi in 1980 and Narendra Modi's triumph in 2014. Both may have been shocking for those who (perhaps unwittingly) posit their own thinking and values on the electorate, but it probably came as no great "shock" to voters who live outside the chattering class ghettos of Istanbul and Ankara.
If the British media are any indication, the liberal fraternity of Turkey-watchers have equated Erdogan's victory as their personal defeat. On Monday's Channel Four news, the reporter proffered a curious observation: the election was free, but was it fair? The implication was that the AKP had twisted the terms of the debate to favour itself. That's not surprising, and isn't that what David Cameron did in Britain earlier this year when he invoked the horror of a left-wing Labour frittering away the economic gains of the past five years? Would we say that the UK general election was free but not fair?
Then there was the second catch phrase: Erdogan, it was widely suggested, was "divisive" and could steer Turkey in an "authoritarian" direction. Just prior to voting, a European Union report suggesting a possible erosion of democracy was leaked. In addition, there were the usual bouts of verbal skirmish between AKP leaders and media that mouthed the usual liberal platitudes, including, presumably, some we'll-fix-you threats from both sides. In India, these would be run-of-the mill stuff, a part of what Amit Shah would presumably call " jumla". They don't correspond to decorous conduct in the UK where the height of offensiveness consists of pelting opponents with rotten vegetables. But surely the media have to judge every society through indigenous standards.
Indians, it would seem, understand the forces at play in Turkey far better than Guardian-readers from London. On a Radio Four news programme shortly after the Turkish results were known, a BBC reporter asked an English-speaking psychologist her reactions. She admitted that she was both upset and disappointed by Erdogan's victory. "Will you now leave the country?" the reporter proceeded to ask. It was such a strange and leading question that even the lady was taken aback: "Why?" she retorted, "This is my country."
The question flowed from the pre-conceived notion that Erdogan was a baddie and that his "shock" victory would usher an era of "divisive" politics where the ultra-secular elite would lament the passing of the good old days of uninhibited cosmopolitanism. There was a pre-determined conclusion, and the questions and answers were expected to provide it substance.
I recall participating (from Delhi) on the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme on the night of Modi's victory in May 2014. I expected a few searching questions on the priorities and agenda of the new government. What was on offer instead was a pre-recorded lament of Sir Anish Kapoor suggesting this was not the India he grew up in. A pre-determined narrative, in other words, had been kept ready to pander to predetermined conclusions. Erdogan has been subjected to that same treatment: his view of the Turkish future differs from the liberal narrative on the subject.
The day after Diwali, Modi arrives in Britain for his first visit as prime minister. In terms of the liberal consensus, Modi is an affront and must be brought down a notch or two. Don't, therefore, be surprised if the rally for 60,000 doting Indians at Wembley stadium on November 13 becomes the occasion for gratuitous comparisons with rallies in the town of Nuremberg. In the liberal world, there is space for only one view - their own.
The Telegraph, November 6, 2015