Comment: Modi in Britain
Originally published on The Indian Express, 16th November 2015.
Beyond a reiteration of good intentions, little was achieved. Neither past difficulties were resolved nor future opportunities concretised.
by Dr Alistair McMillan
The grand tamasha of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom and his Wembley performance represents a neat conjunction between the interests of Britain and India. Greater business opportunities and friendly relationships are surely something to be celebrated, and closer integration of two influential nations has to be a source of contentment.
There is much to celebrate, but as British Prime Minister David Cameron stated at the joint press conference held at 10, Downing Street, “I do not believe that we’re realising the true potential of this relationship”. The focus of Cameron’s statement was on money, and the financial benefits of greater links between British and Indian business. But it is also about electoral politics and votes.
Both Cameron and Modi won unexpected majorities in the last general elections of their respective countries. In Cameron’s case, the Conservative party won a majority of seats in the House of Commons in 2015 with just under 37 per cent of the vote share. Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party won a majority of seats in May, 2014 with less than a third of the popular vote. Both leaders benefited from a fractured opposition and weaker challengers whose narrative failed to resonate with the electorate.
This leaves both the prime ministers with a mandate, albeit a fragile one. Economic competence and an ability to project national influence were key to their electoral success, and Modi’s visit to London plays to these strengths.
The former chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi played the image of an international statesman to the hilt. Not only was he feted by the once imperial queen but he also showed that India today enjoys the global influence and respect that is due to a nation of its size. Far away from the disappointing electoral aftermath of the Bihar campaign, where BJP lost to a coalition of regional parties, the Indian prime minister also got some nice pictures clicked. The visit also provided him with the links to the funding opportunities from NRI groups in the United Kingdom.
For his part, Cameron got to speak to a crowd of the Indian diaspora that has traditionally supported the rival Labour party. This constituency is showing signs that they may be listening to the Conservative party’s message. The Wembley stadium provided a platform to appeal to a group of people who by the dint of their education and enterprise would be expected to be natural Conservatives, but have tended to vote for the Labour party in the past.
What has gone unchallenged in the banal exchanges of the international communiqués are issues relating to human rights and freedom of speech. Whilst the United Kingdom media reports of Modi’s visit tend to append a cautionary note about his abject record on communal relations and his association with the Gujarat massacre, Cameron government’s policy is that business comes first.
The days of an ethical foreign policy have long been shelved in Britain, and Modi’s visit comes in the aftermath of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ceremonial tour. In both cases, it was clear that the emphasis was on developing good trading conditions, and the British position was a low bow in the direction of these mighty economic powerhouses.
For Modi, the line that “India is the land of Gandhi” has been trotted out as the standard response to any suggestions that his past (or even his present) political career has been tarnished by communalism. Even those with little knowledge of Indian political history will be aware that Gandhi’s response to communal unrest was very different to Modi’s. It is also, of course, problematic for the British government to criticise a democratically elected leader given its own brutal colonial history in South Asia.
A similar feeling of displacement is the association with Gandhi and the project to develop smart cities, which hardly resonates with Gandhi’s vision of development. There is an easy elision of national emblems and economic growth, but there are few practical tools, in terms of programmes, to deliver any sustainable development.
Cameron and Modi came together to present a rosy picture of joint economic cooperation and prosperity. Yet behind the confident talk of new bond markets and shared investments, there are tensions. In October, Tata Steel announced that it would be cutting 1,200 jobs in Britain. Attempts to limit net migration have led to restrictions on the number of Indians working or studying in the United Kingdom. With a British government committed to an austerity programme designed to bring down public spending to historically low levels, there seems little opportunity for any systematic programme of investment, which could foster Anglo-Indian development.
Much of this is tied up with the Conservative party’s divisions regarding the European Union. The Indian prime minister has talked of the United Kingdom as its “entry point into the European Union”, but with Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the EU membership, this might be challenged. For the main anti-EU party — the United Kingdom Independence Party — membership restricts the opportunities to trade with countries like India. This leaves the British prime minister in an awkward position. On the one hand he is trying to promote trade while, on the other, he is restricting immigration and negotiating a new settlement with the other countries in the EU.
Cameron is adept at the role of convivial host, and Modi accepted the opportunity to perform a presidential style address at Wembley. For both, this offered a chance for gaining electoral advantage, and something of a distraction from other more pressing political challenges.
Modi’s visit to London could have been an opportunity to develop a mutual understanding of the social and economic challenges facing the two countries as they look to the future. It did present a celebration of the success of the people from India who have come to live and work in the United Kingdom. Yet in terms of the recognition of past difficulties and future opportunities for economic engagement, there was little beyond high finance and good intentions.