Vidya Ram

A wintry touch to Modi’s UK visit

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 22, 2018

Concerns over the state of minorities in India could influence his engagement with British politicians and businesses

What can one expect of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK this week? Britain will be the last major western power that he will visit since starting his premiership, so comparisons will inevitably be drawn with visits he has made elsewhere — as well as with other recent high profile visits to Britain. Modi’s visits to the US and Germany, and that of Chinese president Xi Jinping to the UK, are comparisons that come readily to mind.

All the visits had standout elements — the US visit led to long-awaited progress on civil nuclear cooperation, and cemented relations with Silicon Valley.

Modi’s visit to Germany was swiftly followed by Merkel’s trip to India — at a time she was facing major domestic pressure over her government’s open door policy to refugees back home — and further deals, including $2.25 billion towards clean energy projects.

On the British side Xi Jinping’s visit — different from Modi’s visit in that it was a head of state visit rather than head of government visit and was therefore accompanied by more pomp and ceremony — clinched some 40 billion pounds of deals, including a £6 billion investment by China into Hinckley Point C, a nuclear power station being developed in south-east England.

Diaspora event

Modi’s British visit — like that of his first visit to the US when he held the rally at Madison Square Gardens last year — is likely to be a huge diaspora event.

An estimated 45 per cent of Britain’s Indian diaspora population are thought to be Gujarati, many who have formed a support base and source of funds over the years.

He is set to address a gathering of 60,000 people at Wembley stadium on November 13, which, according to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, could be the largest ever political rally in modern British history.

Much of the visit will concentrate on the long-established and well-trodden connections between India and the UK — one of his first moves after arriving will be a visit to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Parliament Square, unveiled by Arun Jaitley and David Cameron earlier this year.

He will also visit Ambedkar House — a former residence of the Dalit rights champion acquired by the Indian government earlier this year, and will also unveil a statue of 12th century philosopher Basaveshwara.

He’s also set to visit a Jaguar Land Rover plant, and address MPs and members of the House of Lords in parliament, and stay over at Chequers, the British prime minister’s official country house retreat.

Deals-wise, however, the visit is likely to be less of a stand-out than the others. Hammond has cautioned that its unlikely to be full of the big ticket deals that we saw with China, where massive government to government deals dominated.

Among Britain’s priorities will be deepening its presence in defence aviation (via a step-up in the Hawk trainer jet programme) in India, and in India’s civil nuclear programme.

Britain has expressed interest in deepening its presence in defence aviation and in India’s civil nuclear programme.

Deals in the City are likely, including the shoring up of London as a centre for Masala bonds issuance.

Yet the visit will be about what isn’t said, publicly at least — despite British attempts to accord little significance to the fact that Britain has figured pretty much at the end of major powers Modi has visited.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed and cannot be disregarded, and shows the changing nature of India’s relationship with the West, and particularly Europe.

Changing tenor

While Britain, and London as a financial centre, remain key to India doing business abroad, its interests are diversifying — Britain has slowly been accounting for a lower share of Indian investment into Europe, from 75 per cent to around 50 per cent in recent times, estimates Gareth Price of Chatham House, the think tank.

At a government level he also contrasts the willingness of other governments such as Germany and France — which recently pledged €2 billion towards Smart Cities — to take a more active role at a government to government level in India’s economic development.

In contrast, the British government’s long-awaited investment in the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic corridor simply never materialised.

There are certainly major sources of contention: visas — particularly for students and businesses — remain a tricky topic, with Britain unwilling to recognise the extent of the problem.

In fact, Britain has gone from acknowledging they faced a challenge with perceptions of how hard it is to come to the UK as a student, to now insisting that the decline in numbers is entirely down to government efforts to crack down on bogus educational institutions.

Senior ministers have repeatedly insisted that they wish to break the link between settlement and study —insisting students will have to leave the UK after their studies.

The lack of British action to proactively support the UK steel industry — dominated by Indian and Indian firms such as Tata Steel and Caparo — through the current crisis will hardly have gone unnoticed, too.

Under pressure

Most significantly, however, compared to other visits, it comes at a time when the Prime Minister has been under the greatest pressure of his tenure, in the wake of the surprise Bihar results, and growing international concerns about the treatment of minorities and disadvantaged groups.

Even Hammond recently acknowledged that the issues raised in the recent Moody’s report — including the warning that the “belligerent provocation of various Indian minorities” risked undermining local and global credibility — would be discussed in bilateral talks during Modi’s visit.

As many as 45 MPs, including the current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, signed up to a parliamentary Early Day Motion expressing concerns about various humanitarian issues in India, including the ban on the documentary, India’s Daughter, the treatment of civilians in Kashmir, and the treatment of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai.

Business leaders have been cautious in their perspectives on the situation in India ahead of the visit, while there has been considerable scepticism in the media, with the Financial Times saying Modi harboured “digital delusions ahead of his Silicon Valley trip”. Several public protests are being planned by a number of organisations during the course of his visit.

While other groups have expressed their concerns about the tone of the visit, CasteWatchUK have criticised the plan for Modi to open Ambedkar House.

The extent to which he will be able to shake these off during the visit remains to be seen.

Published on November 11, 2015

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