Three hits and a reversal of imperial roles

The Indian prime minister’s maiden visit to the UK was largely successful if somewhat weighted. But, writes John Elliott, it served to highlight the much altered nature of the Indo-British relationship.

Narendra Modi came to the UK in mid-November with three main aims: to make a high profile visit to the City of London because of its role as an international financial centre, to build up the Bharatiya Janata Party’s world-wide diaspora links by speaking at a mega ego-boosting overseas Indians’ event in Wembley Stadium, and to meet the Queen. He scored on all three in a visit that underlined the role-reversal in what was described as the ‘shared history’ between the fading former imperial power and its old colony, which is now emerging as one of the world’s largest economies.
In terms of substance, the Indian diaspora’s jamboree is probably the most immediately significant because it underlined the importance and success of overseas Indians in Britain, as well as extending the BJP’s grip on an important worldwide support base that can be mobilised on social media and in other ways during Indian elections. Mr Modi also developed, it appears, an understanding with his host David Cameron during hours of private political discussions at Chequers, the British prime minister’s official country residence.
The three-day (actually 52-hour) visit must have seemed a welcome break for Mr Modi from life in India, where he had left behind a devastating BJP defeat in the Bihar state assembly election that was substantially his fault. His party’s elders such as L.K. Advani, whom he had brutally side-lined in the past 16 months, had just spoken out against his leadership and that of his main aide, party president Amit Shah. And there were widespread grumbles that Mr Modi was not spending enough time in India running the under-performing government.
In London, he found a Conservative government desperate to make him feel welcome and important with a series of events, starting with a Scottish and Welsh Guards ceremonial greeting in the Treasury Courtyard almost adjacent to Downing Street. The events were only fractionally marred by large and noisy street anti-Modi demonstrations that he scarcely saw or heard. He did, however, for the first time since he became prime minister, have to face a press conference, which he has avoided in India. That led to tough questions, including the BBC asking why India was becoming such an intolerant place. In public at least, this was the only time that Britain got the upper hand.
Mr Cameron had been trying to arrange the visit since India’s general election last year, but Mr Modi chose to go to nearly 30 other countries first, though there was a possibility that he would have arrived in early January if a Delhi visit by President Obama had not intervened, along with other factors. Be that as it may, Mr Modi’s priority countries, aside from the South Asian neighbours, have been the US, Japan, China and Australia, leaving the UK well down the list.
Cameron has been to Delhi three times since Mr Modi was elected, sometimes leading a posse of other ministers, but he was not given priority treatment, and the visits caused scarcely a ripple in a capital where there is a constant stream of visiting presidents, prime ministers and others. So to make a mark, Cameron needed to get Modi to London, where pomp and ceremony would leave a lasting impression on the visitor-something that became even more important when the visit eventually happened a few weeks after Chinese president Xi Jinping had all the glory of a full state visit.
Mr Modi’s three priorities for the visit suggest that he has not seen the UK itself as a significant country and ally, but does rate both the 1.5 million-plus Indian diaspora and the City, where he wanted to be seen in one of the world’s international financial capitals, pitching for infrastructure and other investments in India. Consequently, his (rather humdrum) speech to businessmen was located in the City’s Guildhall, instead of a less iconic conference hall.
That fits with the focus of his approach to foreign policy since becoming prime minister. Everywhere he has been outside South Asia, he has targeted the diaspora, and everywhere he has notched up investment pledges that now total over $80 billion. Mr Modi has, however, largely failed to ensure that his government follows through on the billions he has lined up.
The basket began in Japan in September last year on Mr Modi’s first major trip outside South Asia, when $35 billion was pledged for five years of public and private funding of developmental projects, including railways, smart cities and cleaning the River Ganges. Yet little progress has been made, though Japan has recently hardened up on the railway possibilities by offering $15 billion of ultra-cheap loans for a 505 km high-speed train line between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, part of a plan for bullet trains connecting the major metros.
Later in September last year, China’s President Xi Jinping was in India and a largely undefined package of $20 billion was announced for infrastructure projects over five years, including high speed railways and industrial parks. Again, little has emerged, and that was followed in May this year when Mr Modi went to Shanghai and got $22 billion for 21 business deals. Similarly in October last year, when he went to the US, there were $41 billion’s worth of possibilities from American companies over three years. In January this year, when President Obama visited India, there was a more modest $4 billion package of support for renewable energy and other initiatives.
In London, the joint statements produced what was described as £9 billion ($13.7 billion) of deals, though it was not clear where the figure came from. Officials had, maybe significantly, been talking about producing a list of ‘deliverables’, but how many of them are delivered remains to be seen, as does the effect on boosting bilateral trade from its current $14 billion to a $30 billion target set five years ago. There were useful (though not all new) initiatives on climate change, defence collaboration and cyber co-operation, plus counter-terrorism that gained urgency when the Paris attacks started an hour or so after the Wembley crowds had gone home.
Then there was a list of 26 commercial deals, some tiny, some more substantial, most of which would have happened anyway without the Modi visit. They ranged from a Madam Tussauds waxworks in Delhi to banking, insurance, healthcare and energy investments in both countries. Some expected deals, including £500 million for Hawk trainer aircraft, and Aviva raising its investment stake in an Indian insurance joint venture, were not finalised in time. Progress was, however, made during the visit, though it was not mentioned publicly, on opening up India to the British legal profession.
The Wembley Stadium tamasha stemmed from Modi’s policy of mobilising the diaspora as part of India’s and the BJP’s international soft power, and making overseas Indians feel part of a global community that is appreciated back in their country of origin. No other such community in the UK is capable of organising such a spectacular, and this sharpened the contrast between the largely successful Indian-origin people (half of whom vote Conservative, according to some estimates) and others from South Asia.
Triggered and monitored by the overseas department of the BJP in Delhi, and Overseas Friends of BJP, the event was organised by Europe India Forum, a private limited company registered earlier this year, and a London-based UK Welcomes Modi group. Those wishing to attend had to give personal details which are now stored in a database that can be used by the BJP for future formidable mobilising of support.
Similar organisations have been set up elsewhere-for example the Indo-American Community of the West Coast organised a big meeting in San Jose in California, where there was an audience of 18,000 at the end of September. The events started when Mr Modi went to the US in October last year and amazed everyone with 18,000-20,000 people flocking to see him in Madison Square Gardens. There were 18,000 in Sydney a month later, 10,000 in Toronto last April, 5,000 in Shanghai in May, and some 50,000 in Dubai in August. Shortly after Wembley, there were 20,000 in Kuala Lumpur and a smaller total in Singapore.
Overall, Modi’s visit to the UK was rather one-sided, with Britain giving in terms of official hospitality and the diaspora giving its adoration, while it was not clear what Mr Modi gave in return, at least publicly. But that maybe is the nature of the changed imperial relationship and international balance of power. When President Barack Obama went to Delhi in January this year, he publicly admonished Mr Modi (without naming him) in a public speech for failing to protect religious freedom, and Mr Modi responded within a few days by stressing its importance. Cameron may have said something along those lines, gently, at Chequers, but Britain no longer has the clout to make such remarks openly, or to expect a response from Mr Modi.

John Elliott is based in New Delhi where he writes the ‘Riding the Elephant’ blog. His prize-winning book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality has just been published (Nov ’15) internationally as an updated paperback by HarperCollins 360.


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