Asian Affairs looks ahead to the first state visit to Britain by India’s charismatic prime minister, which is evoking both praise and protest.
He’s not many people’s image of a rock star but there’s no doubt Narendra Modi has attained that status on the world political stage and the build-up for his visit to Britain matches the anticipation of a major Rolling Stones gig.
Wembley Stadium is reserved and long since booked out by the faithful dying to see the most charismatic Indian leader since Gandhi. So the politicians’ expectations are reaching impossible heights, perhaps too high for the relatively modest talents of the likes of David Cameron, the British prime minister labouring under the banner ‘Two great nations. One great future’.
The coincidence with Diwali adds some extra spice as Priti Patel, Cameron’s Indian Diaspora Champion, noted. ‘It is such a special and auspicious occasion for all Indians and the fact we have the prime minister of India coming to the UK at that auspicious time to be among the largest Indian diaspora communities in the world will absolutely make this a very exciting celebration and a very important illustration of the strength of the relationship of our two great nations,’ said Patel.
‘I am thrilled to be involved in supporting the official visit and also being involved in the community event at Wembley Stadium (November 13). We have an enormous, very successful Indian diaspora in the UK and I think they are absolutely at the heart of this visit. It will be a tremendous celebration of the UK-Indian diaspora.’
She said the visit would be an opportunity for the two leaders to take their ‘special relationship’ into the modern context in terms of supporting Prime Minister Modi’s vision of economic development.
‘India as a global leader stands tall in the world and we can support India’s global aspirations, whether it’s on employment, investment or on trade. As two nations we stand together, shoulder to shoulder to meet those shared objectives.’
Patel attended the recent G20 summit in Turkey. There she held a bilateral with her Indian counterpart Bandaru Dattatreya and together they pledged to work together to bring down the number of NEETs (young people Not in Education, Employment or Training) by 15 per cent. The pair are likely to move that scheme forward during the Modi visit, which will focus in part on education and training, long a key part of Britain’s appeal to the sub-continent until recent visa problems intruded.
As a result, the Make in India slogan is likely to be heard often during the visit and Patel observed: ‘When it comes to Make in India, we absolutely are there to support the Indian government. Central to that is skills, training and education and we can support India investing in people. So we see this as a natural collaboration, a natural partnership.’
But the talk of a history-making visit has not impressed all communities in the diaspora and, like most major foreign forays, this one is likely to attract its fair share of protests. Demonstrations against the visit are threatened by Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and members of the Dalit community, but there could also be concerns of dissent being influenced by insider elements.
The protests are organised by the campaign group Awaaz Network, which is made up of a number groups across the country, all of whom are calling upon people not to buy ‘the stage-managed, internationally orchestrated hype about Modi’.
The group plans a protest outside No10 Downing Street on November 12 and has urged people not to attend the cultural show that will accommodate Modi’s speech at Wembley the following day.
Other groups, however, take a more positive view. Shamsuddin Agha, President of the Indian Muslim Federation, said he believes the visit ‘will demolish the walls of hatred and extremism’, while Gurmail Singh Mahli, President of Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall, the largest Sikh Gurdwara in the UK, praised Modi’s ‘farsighted leadership’ and ‘visionary direction’.