If symbolism, gestures and nuances are the indicators of warmth in bilateral relations, much of that was in evidence as Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in a cold and grey London on Thursday.
It seemed that both sides were in a hurry to make up for lost opportunities during the last decade, when apart from ‘auto-pilot’ activities, the relationship between India and Britain was at best jaded.
British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that the relationship was not what it should have been, but blamed it on ‘misconceptions of the past’ that he promised to jettison. By Thursday afternoon, it was clear that both Mr Cameron and Mr Modi were keen to bury the past and move forward. Several official declarations followed the bilateral talks: A joint statement, vision statement, and ‘partnership’ documents on a range of issues, including defence and international security, energy and climate change, culture and private sector deals amounting to £9.2 billion. The text and context of the relationship and the timing of the visit converged at many levels — the personal (between the two leaders) to the wider state and international status of Britain and India.
Mr Cameron’s enthusiasm to engage with India has been evident from the time he became leader of the opposition in 2005, to his three visits to India as PM since 2010. On his part, Mr Modi appeared keen to match the enthusiasm. Both from the host’s welcome and Mr Modi’s demeanour, it seemed more a meeting of equals. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said at a meeting of the Raleigh Club and Indian Majlis in Oxford in 1931, “The Emperorship must go and I should love to be an equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows. But it must be a partnership on equal terms.”
It is not a state visit, but the hosts have clearly raised it to almost that level: First address to parliament by an Indian PM, first lunch appointment with the Queen, first overnight stay by an Indian PM at Chequers, first flypast without the colours of the British flag, and Mr Cameron by Mr Modi’s side at almost every event.
The official statements, however, are not radically new. The one aspect that stands out in British reports is that perceptions of India must not be tied to the colonial past. Britain has a vibrant and successful Indian community, contributing much to Britain’s economy. British investment in India is growing and vice versa. Britain has ended its aid programme to India. There is a, thus, convergence of various factors that promises to reset India-Britain ties. Mr Modi’s visit has been marked by protests, which have been brushed aside by him and Mr Cameron, reflecting the longue durée reality that the relationship between the two countries is bigger than any one man.