As these things go, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to the UK is unexceptional. This is despite the hype and hoopla that accompany any Modi tour. There was the usual protocol and British pomp and show well designed to massage the ego—the guard of honour, the fly past, the speech to MPs at the Royal Gallery (billed as the first speech by an Indian PM to the British Parliament), the lunch with the Queen, the weekend at Chequers– and the grand diaspora tamasha at Wembley. But all that is now par for the course.
What was different was that for the first time Modi had to respond to issues like Gujarat 2002 and the climate of intolerance back home at a press conference in full public glare. Different, too, was Modi’s evocation of national icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, the Buddha and even Jawaharlal Nehru in his excellent speech to the British MPs. Not only was its content subtly expressed, but the PM’s delivery was smooth and cadenced, although with the help of a teleprompter. Asked about the intolerance issue, Modi delivered a forthright, though not quite ringing, reply that there was no place for intolerance in India and that any incident would be dealt with the full force of the law. He did, however, duck the question on the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots, even while insisting that he had not visited UK since 2003 not because of a ban on him, but because he had been busy.
Given the climate of intolerance back home and Modi’s vacillation, we should see as positive the fact that the Prime Minister has categorically stated his views on the issue of intolerance and emphasised, as he did at Wembley, that diversity lies at the heart of the Indian nation.
Three aims of visit
Modi’s visit had three points of focus—the need to promote British investment in India, especially for his “Make in India” plan, to connect with the Indian diaspora and to use the visit to bounce back from the Bihar debacle. Modi has not hidden the fact that the principal goal of his visit was to sell his economic agenda in a city which is one of two great financial centres of the world.
On their part, the British side made it abundantly clear that India was an important element in their economic plans, given the significant Indian investments in UK, as well as India’s need for British technology, financial services and educational expertise. British PM David Cameron, too, sidestepped issues relating to the past and pointedly noted that Modi was visiting Britain following his huge electoral mandate in India.
There was also the usual joint statement promising “global”/”special”/”natural”/ “international security” partnership and a flurry of deals signed between Indian and British companies. Longer term FDI is quite another matter. In any case, it is well known that Indians put more direct investment into UK, than the other way around. Indeed, the real challenge Modi faces is to persuade Indian billionaires to invest in India, rather than in UK, Singapore or Netherlands.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the ongoing visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the recent tour of Xi Jinping to the UK. Both were the first heads of government to visit in a decade or so, though Xi as head of state merited a higher level of protocol and the reddest of red carpets.
Xi came to awe, which he did by announcing a slew of investment plans, reportedly totalling $62 billion. If India got its nuclear deal with the promise of future cooperation, China was focused on the immediate and took a one-third stake in a $28 billion British nuclear power plant in UK with the promise of additional investments in the sector. Among the other goodies he had on offer was a deal for British Petroleum to supply $ 1 million tonnes of LNG for the next 20 years.
Of course there was calculation in the largesse. China is keen to reach out to UK whose economy is slated to become the largest in the European Union. China wants to move to a higher level of manufacturing and sees Europe as a huge market and now uses its cash reserves to push sales of its nuclear reactors and high-speed trains to developed countries. That is why Europe is the destination for all its Silk Road projects. China wants to use London’s status as a global financial market to midwife the emergence of the Yuan as an international currency by 2020.
In many ways, the XI visit marked another shift of the Chinese gears, this time aimed at giving content to their quest to become a truly global power. Who better to enmesh deeply in their vision, than one of the greatest global powers of history? It is for this reason they committed themselves to a “complete and global strategic partnership”, which according to Sinologist Franscesco Sisci is a first for China. In turn, the UK has recognised “that both sides attach(es) to its own political system.” In other words, there are no mealy-mouthed homilies on human rights and democracy.
Modi, too, understands that the UK remains a key global player and its doorway to Europe. Recognising the importance of a visit to its economic agenda, the government announced a series of measures to promote foreign direct investment in India. While the overdue steps were welcomed, it is not at all certain that they would be sufficient, considering that we are still some way from reaching a reasonable ranking in the ease of doing business index.
According to reports, India and UK could announced deals worth $ 12-$ 18 billion, including one for additional Hawk trainers for the armed forces. This could be a bigger deal for a “Combat Hawk” since there is talk of reconfiguring the aircraft for combat in close air support roles. Britain’s great defence companies like BAE systems are clearly interested in participating in the ongoing Indian defence acquisition bonanza. As for other areas, the list released during the Modi visit is not particularly impressive, aimed mainly in the area of renewable power, healthcare and IT, education and entertainment.
There is one big difference in the context between India and China. Where China is viewed as an antagonistic power, India is seen as being part of the western camp, albeit, so far in its outer periphery. This is spelt out in the joint statement and the vision statement that was issued on Thursday. In referring to internal issues of concern to India in Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka in the joint statement, Britain clearly indicated its acceptance of a New Delhi’s sphere of influence in the South Asian region minus Pakistan. But where Xi’s visit appeared to be aimed at inserting a wedge, howsoever small, in the US-UK partnership, there was little strategic content in the Modi visit. It was, as we have said, fairly routine, notwithstanding the Modi hype. India’s ties with UK have a historical and contemporary relevance but they are more transactional than we realise. What is important is the give and take, not the rhetoric and hype.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.