Bilateral visits are invariably accompanied by much hype about relationships being ‘special’ and ‘strategic’, even if benefits in real terms are not always clear. Such pre-visit encomiums are evident as Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Britain for three days from Thursday. The difference is that, for once, there is a confluence of factors that makes it more possible to revitalise a relationship stagnating for more than a decade. Since 2010, there has been something of a ‘one-way traffic’, with British Prime Minister David Cameron visiting India three times but the Indian side has not been exactly enthusiastic. However, Mr Modi’s visit can prove an appropriate response to Mr Cameron’s overtures.
A new British Council report calls upon the Cameron government to jettison ‘outdated perceptions’ about India, and reminds it that ‘(a) shared past is not enough to keep a relationship going’. Published days before Mr Modi’s visit, the report has been music to Indians long accustomed to banging heads against the British foreign office’s colonial mindset. Secondly, British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has declared that Britain is ready to ‘sweep away’ any obstacles, particularly in the civil nuclear energy sector. India has also made it clear that if Britain continues to deny it the technology it needs, there are several countries willing to step in.
There is much that happens between the two countries ‘on auto-pilot’, particularly in the fields of science, technology and education. But Britain needs investment from India and access to its market and India needs British investment in infrastructure and technology. The relationship is clearly at a key juncture, even if some sticking points from India’s point of view are unlikely to be resolved soon. These include allowing anti-India forces to function and raise funds in Britain, not extraditing individuals such as Tiger Hanif and Raymond Varley, making it ever more difficult for Indian professionals to get work visas or making Britain less attractive for Indian students. The high-profile diaspora event at the Wembley Stadium and other ‘high optics’ during the visit may well validate Enoch Powell’s description of the relationship as a ‘shared hallucination’ — it will be a pity if it remained so.