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A break for the PM: Britain will pull out all the stops

Britain is the eager suitor proffering bouquets on bended knee while India is the slightly aloof object of desire.

analysis Updated: Nov 11, 2015 08:44 IST

Justin Rowlatt
(PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need a break after the setback in Bihar and if anything is going to restore his confidence his trip to Britain this week should.

Britain will be pulling out all the stops. The Indian prime minister isn’t a head of state so he won’t get the full bearskin and gilded carriage reception accorded to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, last month. He will, however, get lunch with the Queen and a superstar appearance at the Wembley Stadium, where he will be joined on stage — or so it is rumoured — by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The warmth of the welcome is evidence of how the terms of trade between the two countries have shifted in recent years. Now Britain is the eager suitor proffering bouquets on bended knee; India the slightly aloof object of desire.

Cameron told Modi last year “relations with India are at the top of the priorities of Britain’s foreign policy”. And he has put in the air miles to prove he is serious. He has visited India three times since he came to power, even leading the largest trade mission ever by a British prime minister to any nation. He had brought enough government ministers and business people to Mumbai in February in 2013 to fill a jumbo jet.

It is easy to see why he’s so keen. India is now the fastest-growing large economy in the world and has become the third biggest source of foreign investment in Britain with billions at stake.

But to date Modi has not exactly swooned before Britain’s charms. He acknowledges David Cameron is a “good friend” of India but has not rushed to buddy up. He’s visited dozens of countries in his effort to persuade the world to ‘Make in India’ but, until now, has bypassed Britain.

In part that is because so much else bypasses Britain these days. The sad truth is Britain doesn’t even make India’s top 10 trading partners.

Modi has — rather generously — suggested he sees this as an opportunity. He announced on Facebook that he sees “immense scope for our economic and trade relations to improve and this will benefit both our economies”.

And the two nations’ deep ties of history and people — Britain is home to one of the largest Indian diaspora in the world — do still count for something.

British behemoths like Unilever and HSBC still have deep roots in India. Meanwhile, a new generation — think JCB — is proving that with patience and hard work British brands can prosper in India.

Publicly the leaders say they hope the two countries will build on successes during the visit but behind the scenes we are already being warned not to expect too much.

Word is there won’t be any single multi-billion mega project, instead we’ll be told a lower key story about closer financial ties, a smoothing of obstacles to trade, together with news of a clutch of smaller trade and investment deals.

Nevertheless for Modi it should be the tonic he needs. A photo-opportunity with Her Majesty, a rousing reception at the mother of parliaments and what the organisers of his Wembley gig claim will be the biggest firework display in British history, before returning home to face his growing host of challenges.

Justin Rowlatt is BBC South Asia correspondent based in Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 11, 2015 00:36 IST