New breath of life for an old relationship

Frank Smith looks ahead to the Indian prime minister’s maiden visit to Britain later this year, considering how the trip might impact on this longstanding but sometimes rocky association.

Rarely can a British prime minister have contemplated such a ticklish set of issues as he prepares to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November.

Polite diplomats note that relations between Britain and India have ‘plateaued’ of late, which hardly encompasses the reality that his visit to London comes after the Indian leader has visited every other nation of significance before taking up the British invitation when it had been expected that it would be his first foreign destination.

Polite diplomats note that relations between Britain and India have ‘plateaued’ of late, which hardly encompasses the reality that his visit to London comes after the Indian leader has visited every other nation of significance before taking up the British invitation when it had been expected that it would be his first foreign destination.

The everyday relationship is vexed by the tough British visa requirements for Indians, which might as well be designed to strangle any meaningful relationship between the two countries.

The historical baggage would be an awesome burden for anyone, especially since Britain was the only country to ban Mr Modi after the Gujarat killings of 2002, when he was chief minister there.

But David Cameron somehow has not yet shown himself statesman enough to deal with matters of such gravity, though he did lay a wreath at the memorial to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre when he visited Amritsar in 2013, expressing regret for the killing of non-violent pro-independence protesters but stopping short of an apology.

Perhaps it is time for him to apologise for British conduct during the colonial period.

The dashing opposition MP Shashi Tharoor has certainly put the possibility of an apology on the agenda with his impassioned plea for Britain to pay financial compensation for its colonial rule during a speech to the Oxford Union earlier this year, a message apparently endorsed by the prime minister.

Mr Modi told parliament in Delhi: ‘Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.’ But he did not say whether he actually backed the demand for an apology.

PRIZE FLIGHT: The biggest trade win for the British would be if the deal to sell Typhoon jet fighter-bombers to the Indian Air Force could be put backon the agenda
PRIZE FLIGHT: The biggest trade win for the British would be if the deal to sell Typhoon jet fighter-bombers to the Indian Air Force could be put backon the agenda

In a speech which has since become a YouTube hit, Tharoor said: ‘Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India…we paid for our own oppression…it’s bit rich to impress, main, kill, torture and repress and then celebrate democracy at the end of it.’

The former United Nations undersecretary and celebrated novelist said that Indians had ‘literally paid for their own repression’, since by the end of the 19th century they were the world’s biggest purchasers of British goods as well as providing employment and salaries. Over the period India’s share of the world economy had declined from 27 per cent to 4 per cent.

‘As far as I am concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid,’ added Tharoor. Some estimates have put the material reparations due to India at up to $3 trillion.

The pressure will be on the British side then to meet Indian expectations, most probably in the high tech area where it is likely that there will be agreements on building up Indian skills and possibly twinning British cities with some of Modi’s planned ‘smart cities’. There might also be agreements on the ‘green’ front with help in cleaning up the Ganges and other projects.

The biggest prize on the trade front for the British side would be if the chequered deal to sell the Typhoon jet fighter-bombers to the Indian Air Force could be put back on the agenda. The agreement with the French to buy the Rafale seems to have run into difficulties, despite Mr Modi making a snap executive decision to buy a smaller than originally planned batch of 36 aircraft which goes nowhere near the original requirement for 126 machines.

There is currently no agreement yet on the price to be paid for the package because the original agreement, from government to manufacturer, is not what is now in place, a government-to-government agreement with a differing price set for the amount of offset work going to Indian industry. The French have also apparently decided to sell the aircraft at a new, higher benchmark price based on that charged to the Egyptians for the machines, as opposed to the reported original price set at the same level as that paid by the French Air Force.

With further opportunities for Typhoon sales now looking bleak the Eurofighter team, led by the Germans, will be seeking to insinuate themselves back into the deal and looking for hopeful signs from Mr Modi.

So far the prime ministerial traffic has been virtually all one way, with British prime ministers having visited India four times-Gordon Brown in 2008 and David Cameron three times-despite the two countries’ joint declaration of 2004 having envisaged annual summits. The last Indian prime ministerial visit to Britain was by Manmohan Singh in 2006.

Terrorism is likely to feature in the discussions between the two leaders and here the visiting PM is likely to press the British to do more to deal with what are perceived as anti-Indian organisations campaigning and raising money in Britain. Very probably the Indians will also be pressing for the extradition of Tiger Hanif, wanted for the murder of Hindus in Gujarat in 1993; Ravi Shankaran, a retired naval officer wanted for espionage; and Raymond Varley, who is wanted for sex offences.

Though few details of the visit are yet to hand, the announcement by the Europe India Forum of the public rally they are planning for the Modi visit seems set to outdo the welcomes offered him elsewhere. More than 70,000 people are expected to attend this special-invitation-only ‘Olympic style’ event. They claim it will be the largest reception any foreign head of government has ever received in the UK, let alone the largest an Indian prime minister has ever received anywhere outside India.

The reception, themed ‘Two Great Nations. One Glorious Future’, will kick off with a specially produced cultural show featuring some of the best British Indian artists.

Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address will be followed by what is expected to be the country’s largest fireworks display, as the visit coincides with the festival of Diwali.

Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, business leaders, and personalities from the world of entertainment, art and culture are also expected to attend.

‘Prime Minister Modi has emerged as an iconic figure on the world stage. This Olympics-style reception he will receive at Wembley stadium will not only reflect the respect and adulation he has within the British Indian community, but will highlight and celebrate his vision for a peaceful and prosperous India,’ said Nathu Ram Puri, founder of the EIF as a not-for-profit organisation.

‘It will bring together people from all communities and backgrounds in a mood of celebration of all that unites us as countries and people,’ he added.

‘The UK government places huge importance on the special relationship with India. PM Modi’s forthcoming visit and the community reception will only serve to strengthen the bond of friendship between our two great nations. I encourage as many community organisations to register their support,’ said Priti Patel, UK employment minister and Cameron’s Indian Diaspora Champion.

A dedicated website created for the event- www.ukwelcomesmodi.org – invites UK community organisations to register their interest in becoming ‘Welcome Partners’. The event’s Twitter handle-@ukwelcomesmodi-will be used for all announcements and information relating to the event and its build-up.

Virendra Sharma MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on India-UK Relations, said, ‘The UK’s 1.5 million India diaspora are an excellent bridge between the UK and India. Prime Minister Modi has the largest democratic mandate in the history of the world. As a person of Indian origin, I am hugely looking forward to this defining moment where we can celebrate our democracies and shared values.’

Shamsuddin Agha, President of the Indian Muslim Federation, said, ‘I am delighted that Shri Narendra Modi, our prime minister, will be visiting the UK shortly. I have no doubt that it will strengthen the ties between our great nations. It will bring people closer than ever before. It will bolster trade and economic cooperation.’

He added, ‘The visit will demolish the walls of hatred and extremism. It will work towards the development of all people irrespective of caste, creed or religion and create a pluralistic, multicultural society in India.’

Ranjit Singh Baxi, president of the World Punjabi Organisation, added: ‘Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming visit to the UK will be celebrated as the beginning of a new phase in the strengthening of the Indo-British partnership and the enhancing of bilateral investments. The World Punjabi Organisation and all Indians across UK are looking forward to welcoming Shri Narendra Modi. Working together under his dynamic leadership we will make India a global manufacturing hub-Make in India.’

Lord Karan Bilimoria, cross-bench peer of Zoroastrian Indian descent and founding chairman of the UK India Business Council, said: ‘The UK and India have an opportunity to really invigorate this unique and deep bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Modi’s visit, I am sure, will be the catalyst for many great things.’

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