In the aftermath of Bihar debacle, it was the first foreign visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that took him to London. And so it was natural for him to take it so seriously. In fact, Modi saw in the UK visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in nearly a decade, an opportunity to redeem some of the popularity lost by him in the hubbub of the Bihar battle. Britain as a mother of most Governments nearer home since yore somehow still has its notional, if not real, sway all over the country, including the Hindi hinterland.
Thus, Modi’s red carpet welcome in London and a flypast by the Royal Air Force’s aerobatic team turned out to be a generous gesture. It showed the David Cameron government’s keenness to bond with the visiting Indian leader quite firmly. Notably, the British Prime Minister was among the earliest few to congratulate Modi on becoming prime minister last year.
Within months after his swearing-in as the 15th premier of India, Modi has already visited Japan, the US, Australia, France, Germany, Canada, among other major European, Asian and Middle-Eastern destinations.
In the third week of September this year, the Indian PM had made a maiden day-long jaunt at Ireland, a close neighbouring country of the UK en route to New York to attend the annual UN General Assembly meet.
Yet, Modi did not land in London at that point, not even for unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square early this year. Instead, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was sent to do the honours. It is believed that Modi wanted to visit UK in May, but due to the parliamentary elections in Britain, he could not fit in the fourth largest country of Europe earlier into his itinerary.
Interestingly, Britain was the first Western country to lift diplomatic restrictions imposed on Modi in the wake of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. The then British High Commissioner James Bevan had gone to Gandhinagar on October 22, 2012 to meet Modi to communicate that the 10-year long boycott against him had come to a formal end.
In fact, Britain did not want to be seen lacking in pragmatism and went all out to associate with a man who is hailed for his reformist approach in the country which, as per the latest data from the Confederation for British Industry (CBI), is expected to register fastest growth among the G-20 countries by 2017.
Thus, keen to expand its base in the Indian market, the British government not only accorded Modi all kinds of honour, including a dinner with Queen Elizabeth. He was also allowed to have the distinction and become the first Indian head of government to address the British Parliament.
However, even as Cameron welcomed “the leader of the largest democracy of the world” to the “oldest parliament of the world”, there were also protests and protesters made them to be heard by the Press to say the least. On the PM’s very first day of his three-day visit he was greeted with about 300 people holding up ‘Modi Not Welcome’ placards and banners, marching from Downing Street to Parliament Square.
Tariq Mahmood, a London-based activist, had lodged a complaint against Modi at Deptford police station in South London for his role in the Gujarat riots, while some Sikh community members unfurled anti-Modi banners.
As if this was not enough, a prestigious British literary institution known as PEN, wrote an open letter, signed by 200 eminent writers, to Prime Minister Cameron to bring up the issue of India’s diminishing freedom of expression in his talks with Modi. During a joint press conference, Modi was also quizzed on the subject.
Nevertheless, Modi was the cynosure of British lawmakers, businessmen and the Indian diaspora. He received a standing ovation from British parliamentarians after his speech in which, for the first time in his offshore visit, he called Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Manmohan Singh his “distinguished predecessors” and “makers of modern India”.
Some may see it as Modi’s tactical move to mollify the Congress-led opposition before the beginning of parliament’s winter session which is expected to be as noisy as the din that haunted the House through the last monsoon.
Politics apart, his CEO-like propensity was on display when he talked about India’s readiness to develop the sectors where the UK was “strong.” The third largest foreign investor in India, Britain is, in fact, looked upon with interest by New Delhi for developing its defence and energy technologies.
Both sides have shown readiness for joint manufacturing of defence equipment meant for Indian armed forces and third-world countries as well under Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.
Before Modi was to undertake his UK visit, there was a buzz in the corridors of New Delhi’s South Block that India would have a deal with BAE Systems for more 20 Hawk trainer aircraft to be assembled at Hindustan Aeronautical’s plant in Bangalore. But this did not materialise.
Yet, it was the conclusion of negotiations between India and the UK on a bilateral civil nuclear co-operation agreement that marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the two countries’ relations. Nearly 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity is generated by nuclear reactors. UK has a proven record of nuclear technology use, besides, having proven safety measures tightly in place. Given this, both India and Britain signed a MoU for joint training and sharing of experience in handling civil nuclear units.
Britain’s Light Source Renewable Energy has committed to invest in India’s solar energy sector, which is expected to grow from about 4 GW currently to 100 GW by 2022.
Vodafone has decided to pump in $2 billion for opening technology centres in Pune and Ahmedabad, as also further expansion and upgrading of its mobile telephone network in India.
In total, Britain has agreed to commit over $13.7 billion worth of investment in India where it is also keen to invest in railways, smart cities and Digital India programmes.
However, the second day of Modi’s UK visit must have been the most special to him. He was bestowed a rock-star like treatment from about 60,000 Indian diaspora at the Wembley Stadium, which is normally home to rock concerts and Britain’s national soccer duels.
Senior Indian origin parliamentarians like Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma were said to be in the forefront of organising the memorable Modi spectacle, It turned out to be bigger than the US’s Madison Square event.
Facing attacks back home over the issue of intolerance, Modi took the opportunity to convey his vision for India at the jam packed stadium. In the presence of Cameron and his Saree donning wife Samantha, Modi iterated India’s diversity as the country’s “strength and pride”.
He also underlined the importance of peaceful co-existence. And, all this to ensure that he is no more identified as a divisive force as some people may like him to be believed as whether at hom or in far off lands and climes.
The visit has served as a major platform for Modi as he was able to convey that his reform agenda would now only gather pace despite the bad tidings brought by Bihar.