John Elliott: May and Modi Benefit From Ineffectual Opponents

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, November 7, 2016. John Elliott writes that the weak Labour leader Corbyn and the ineffectual Gandhis guarantee the success of those, such as Modi and May, who present themselves as “strong” leaders. Adnan Abidi/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

LONDON: Any political leader must envy Theresa May, Britain's prime minister, who has already virtually won the UK's general election, even though it doesn't take place for another month, without promising anything more than "strong and stable government".

She has avoided being questioned by the media and by critical voters, and has not explained how she is going to deliver stability as Britain approaches its Brexit destiny – apart from showing that she will be as tit-for-tat tough and horrible as she deems necessary with European Union negotiators.

The Conservative Party manifesto, due out in a day or two, will provide some clues on policies, but victory has been virtually assured by big victories that the party won in regional and local elections last week.

May ought to be challenged by a coherent opposition that would attack her hard negotiating line and argue that astute and flexible political footwork could work better in Brussels, but there is no such challenge. Instead, county council and mayoral elections results declared on May 5 showed the decimation of both the leftist Labour Party and rightist UK Independence Party. Support for the strongly pro-European Scottish National Party declined and was insignificant for the middle-of-the road Liberal Democrats.

Flip forward exactly 24 months to 2019 when Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, will be coming to the end of India's next general election campaign, five years after he and his Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory on May 16, 2014 promising acche din (good days).

Imagine that the BJP has set the stage, as has happened for May in Britain, by winning most if not all of the important assembly elections that are due to take place between now and then in Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The Congress Party will probably still be fumbling its way to ignominy as it procrastinates about how to side-line or even dump the ineffectual Gandhi dynasty. It would therefore be unable to muster voter support, while non-BJP regional party leaders in Bihar, West Bengal and elsewhere could well be failing to unite with a serious challenge, despite various current attempts to get together. The Aam Aadmi Party run by Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, which has been seen as a challenger to established patties is already on the skids.

This weak opposition is a parallel factor in the UK and India, with the Labour Party being unable to garner votes under the ineffectual leadership of arch left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Just as India's Congress Party has failed to grapple with the Gandhi dynasty issue, Labour has procrastinated for too long about dumping Corbyn. Some Labour MPs have deserted him and are not standing in the general election.

Modi will certainly be offering "strong" government in 2019, but it will be an open question whether the country will be "stable", given the BJP's Hindu nationalist base and apparent determination to turn India into a Hindu-dominant and more authoritarian country.

May is offering to implement "strong" delivery of Britain's exit from Europe, but it is highly questionable whether it will be "stable" because she has shown no ability in her political career to compromise. Indeed, she could well be leading Britain into two years (the official time for negotiating Brexit) or more of turmoil.

Related: John Elliott : When India and China Compete, India Always Loses

Insults have been flying between Downing Street and Brussels, especially since European officials leaked details of a private dinner party in 10 Downing Street, the office and home of Britain's prime minister. The chief guest was Jean-Claude Juncker, the outspoken former prime minister of small state of Luxembourg who revels in the limelight of his current job as president of the European Commission, and who the British media portray as an excessively jolly and mischievous heavy drinker.

Juncker said he was "10 times more sceptical" about a successful negotiated settlement after the dinner, and was reported to have told Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that May was existing in a "parallel reality" and a "different galaxy." That prompted Merkel to say that Britain harboured "illusions" about what could be achieved through Brexit.

Relations worsened when The Financial Times revealed Britain could be asked to settle a €100bn bill to cover outstanding EU liabilities before Brexit. Juncker then unnecessarily stirred the pot by provocatively telling a conference in Florence that he would speak in French because "slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe".

May responded by accusing Brussels officials of interfering in the British election, adding that "there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper."

Related: John Elliott : British Ministers Run Into a Brick Wall in India

Her remarks carried special weight because she made them standing in Downing Street just after she had been to Buckingham Palace to tell the Queen formally that parliament had been dissolved for the election. She was of course capitalising on the Juncker attack and Merkel comments to win votes by strengthening anti-Europe views among the British electorate. Her remarks will however not be forgotten by Juncker and his anti-UK comrades.

Europe's leaders will however probably feel slightly more relaxed after Emmanuel Macron's victory in France's presidential election that has emerged today. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, would have wanted to take France out of the European Union, seriously undermining the future of Europe's unity.

No challenge to Brexit

Viewed from India before I travelled to London ten days ago, it seemed odd that no political party was challenging Brexit and arguing that Britain should stay in Europe and that, if elected, it would recant on last year's narrow pro-Brexit referendum result and on May's recent triggering of Article 50 that launched the exit negotiating process.

I now realise that, though a majority of Conservative MPs in the outgoing Parliament are pro-Europe "Remainers," many of them have constituents who are pro-Brexit, so have been unable to mount a Remain campaign. The Labour Party is similarly in no position to do so, nor it seems is the worthy but minority pro-European Liberal Democrats. These Remainers are now merely calling for a referendum when the negotiations are completed, vainly hoping it seems that this would keep Britain in Europe.

It is therefore clear that the UK does not face a stable future, at least for the next few years. May's government will almost certainly be stable because it looks like having a substantial parliamentary majority, but there will be little stability about the country's economy as foreign companies turn to the European mainland for investment locations, and countries like France and Germany launch bids to steal London's role as a prime financial centre.

There will also be little stability about its relations with Europe if May interprets her promise of "strong" government to mean being a belligerent negotiator.

Modi is more politically agile and is a far better orator and image builder than May. He was elected because the country was tired of the Gandhi clan's failings. Aspirational youth in particular wanted a prime minister who would produce jobs and the possibility of a successful life. They were not however voting for Modi's Hindu ideology, which means that he has two years to produce the economic advances and the acche din the electorate wants.

Similarly, voters who propel May to her landslide victory on June do not want what they are likely to get – strong government but little stability.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).