Britain and India were poised to sign £9 billion of trade deals during a visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, but his arrival on Thursday (12) was overshadowed by protests over a perceived rise in intolerance back home.
Modi got a warm welcome from British prime minister David Cameron, who has tried to cultivate closer ties with India to secure business opportunities in a fast-growing economy at a time when the Indian leader has been prioritising other relationships.
For his part, Modi is seeking to restore his authority on the world stage and regain momentum in the drive to foster investment and growth after a bruising defeat for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in populous Bihar state on Sunday.
Cameron said Britain wanted to support Modi in his efforts to transform India with improved infrastructure and education.
“We want to become your number one partner for supporting the finance needed for this ambitious plan, making London the world’s centre for offshore rupee trading,” Cameron told him during a news conference, adding that plans were in place to issue more than £1bn in bonds.
He also said British and Indian companies would announce new “collaborations” worth £9bn pounds during Modi’s visit, but gave few details.
Modi said the two countries had signed a civil nuclear agreement, which he described as a sign of mutual trust, and said there were plans for a rupee bond aimed at financing Indian railways.
Before the visit, diplomats said the Indian leader was keen to buy 20 more BAE Systems Hawk trainer aircraft to be made in Bangalore.
Cameron has visited India three times since taking office in 2010 in an effort to climb back up the diplomatic pecking order, but Modi is the first Indian head of government to pay an official visit Britain, the country’s former colonial ruler, in almost a decade.
His visit comes at a time when a debate is raging in India over accusations that Modi is failing to rein in Hindu zealots trying to impose their values on all Indians.
As Modi and Cameron shook hands for the cameras outside 10 Downing Street, a crowd of about 200 protesters could be heard shouting anti-Modi slogans nearby.
“Our main concern is that minorities are not safe in India,” said Sikh protester Kuldip Singh.
Asked about these concerns during his joint news conference with Cameron, Modi said India was a vibrant democracy in which individual rights were guaranteed by the constitution and he was committed to that.
“There is something that is deeply entrenched in our culture, in our traditions, which is that of not accepting anything that has to do with intolerance,” he said, adding that violent incidents would not be tolerated.
Critics have accused Modi of remaining silent about incidents such as the recent deaths of four people attacked by Hindus enraged at reports of cows being slaughtered, smuggled or consumed, and the separate shootings of two prominent atheists.
Ahead of his arrival in Britain, more than 200 writers including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan signed an open letter to Cameron urging him to raise concerns about freedom of expression in India during his talks with Modi.
About 45 British members of parliament, including opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, signed a motion to debate India’s human rights record.
The British government, however, rolled out the red carpet for Modi, who was greeted in the grand courtyard of the Treasury by a guard of honour wearing ceremonial bearskin headgear.
Later, the Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force’s aerobatics display team, flew over central London leaving trails in the sky in the colours of the Indian flag.
Modi gave a speech in parliament and was due to head later to the Guildhall, a historic building in the heart of the City of London financial district, to address a business audience.
The Indian prime minister was due to have lunch with the Queen on Friday, before the emotional high point of his visit, a mass rally at Wembley Stadium where Modi will address about 60,000 supporters from India’s 1.5 million-strong diaspora in Britain.