Prime Minister Narendra Modi will fly into a cold and grey London on Thursday on a visit long in coming, but one that is likely to reset and breathe life into India-UK relationship that had not seen much vibrancy during the last decade.
It will also be something of a personal triumph for Modi, who was boycotted by Britain for a decade after the 2002 Gujarat riots. But it was Britain under Prime Minister David Cameron that lifted the boycott in late 2012 and engaged closely with Modi since.
Britain was the first western country to lift the boycott and soon others followed suit. It was expected that Britain would thus be one of the first – if not the first – western country he would visit after the May 2014 elections, but that was not to be.
The three-day visit starting Thursday will be the first prime ministerial visit since Manmohan Singh’s in 2006.
The visit is likely to have some of the resonances of Modi’s last visit to London in 2003, when groups staged protests amidst demands of his arrest. His scheduled visit in 2005 was cancelled due to security considerations.
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The text and the context of Modi’s engagement with Britain has changed since. He will now be much courted by the British establishment, including lunch with Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace – a rare honour for a visiting Indian Prime Minister.
Britain and India’s position in international politics has also undergone a change in the last 12 years. An economically strapped Britain has been courting China and India, while an economically growing India has acquired a position of some strength in international fora.
Instant communication and a large diaspora have brought Britain and India closer, with issues and events – such as the Bihar election result, developments in BJP, etc. – in one country are immediately known and discussed in the other.
Critics insist that there will be less spring in Modi’s steps after the recent political developments back home, but that is unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of the Cameron government to accord a warm welcome.
Besides lunch with the Queen, another indication of the host’s enthusiasm for the visit is the fact that Cameron will be by Modi’s side on almost every event in his itinerary. He will also sit through Modi’s address to the diaspora at the Wembley Stadium.
Britain ended its aid programme to India this year, and the relationship is finally taking shape as one of equals, as Mahatma Gandhi wanted. He set the basis for India-UK relationship when he met members of the Raleigh Club and the Indian Majlis in Oxford in 1931 during his visit here for the Roundtable Conference.
At the meeting, he was asked: “How far would you cut India off from the Empire?” His reply was precise - “From the Empire, entirely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.” He added, “The British Empire is an Empire only because of India. 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.”
Along with China, India is a key component in Cameron’s objective to bring about a ‘Greater Britain’. He is also aware of Britain’s dwindling mindspace in India, as a new report by the British Council suggested.
Cameron said at the annual Diwali event in 10 Downing Street on Tuesday: “What I hope we can achieve this week as we have this great visit is not to rest on the laurels of the past and the ties of history, language and culture, important as they are”.
He added: “Not simply to celebrate the immense economic ties, with India a top investor into Britain and Britain a top investor into India...but actually building a thoroughly modern partnership between our two great countries”.
Deals worth between 10 and 15 billion pounds are expected to be signed. India is seeking a large British investment for infrastructure – in railways, in particular – while Britain expects to land major contracts in the defence and civil nuclear energy sectors.