Is Britain still important to India even though its current prime minister, Narendra Modi, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity, Cambridge), Indira Gandhi (Somerville, Oxford), Rajiv Gandhi (Trinity, Cambridge) and Manmohan Singh (St John’s, Cambridge, and Nuffield, Oxford), is not an Oxbridge man?
The answer seems to be yes – on the whole, Britain is still very important to India.
At his joint press conference with David Cameron last week, Modi was asked why there had been such a long gap since his last visit in 2003.
He denied he had faced a visa ban.
“I came in 2003 and had been warmly welcomed at that time as well,” he said. “The UK has never stopped me from coming here. They have never banned me from coming here.
“Perhaps I could not come because of my own time constraints, so please do correct this wrong perception you may have,” he told a journalist from the Guardian, which has positioned itself as Britain’s leading anti-Modi newspaper.
Modi also told a BBC reporter that “it’s true that there has been a gap of (more than) 10 years. Nonetheless, during my term in the past one year there have been 11 ministerial visits from India to the UK and from the UK to India. Therefore, the relations between the UK and India are continuing. In fact, I have had the opportunity of discussing (matters) at length with prime minister (Cameron) twice, and we have all committed (ourselves) to taking our relationship forward.”
An intriguing article in the Guardian has provoked a spirited debate. It has sought to analyse why, since he became prime minister in May last year, Modi had visited 28 countries, including the US, Germany, France, Brazil and Ireland, before arriving in Britain last week.
“London is Modi’s 29th overseas destination,” the article by Jason Burke, the paper’s generally highly regarded South Asia correspondent, pointed out,
“The 65-year-old politician was supposed to visit in the spring, but the trip was postponed as the UK was in election purdah (a word, like so many other things, appropriated by Britain in colonial times),” he acknowledged.
In fact, he should have said that although Modi was invited to unveil the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square in the spring this year, he was pressed by Labour MPs not to hand the Tories a propaganda coup by coming ahead of the general election in May. Modi was also advised by Indian diplomats that Labour were likely to win the general election and hence it would be wiser to delay his UK trip.
But Burke has said: “The delay makes little difference, however. Modi’s priorities in his push to raise his nation’s profile on the world stage were evident very early.”
Burke argues Modi is not part of India’s westernised elite – and that “the reasons for Modi’s lack of real interest in the UK run deeper. They are cultural rather than economic or purely diplomatic.”
“A former tea seller who rose through the ranks of a Hindu nationalist and revivalist movement, the Indian prime minister is very different from the many Oxbridge-educated or Temple-trained leaders who have previously made their way to No 10,” he writes.
“British literature, language, values and lifestyle do not resonate with Modi in the way they did with previous generations of Indian politicians and the elite from which they were drawn.
“This is true more broadly,” Burke goes on. “Britain is not ‘just another country’ for India – and, given the past, never will be so – but the new emerging India is less in thrall to its erstwhile colonial overlords or their legacy than ever before. The gulf between how Modi’s visit will be viewed in India and how it is seen by British officials and media will only underline that shift.”
On the face of it, this seems a reasonable argument, but has Burke got it wrong?
The Labour peer and economist Meghnad Desai was scornful of the theory that Modi is a lesser human being because he did not go to Oxbridge.
“What a pity India’s prime minister is not Oxbridge educated as any decent Guardian reader would expect of any civilised country,” mocked Lord Desai. “Like all but four of India’s 15 prime ministers (Nehru; Indira, educated in Oxford but never pas-sed any exam; Rajiv, studied in Cambridge but, like his mother, a failed student; and Manmohan Singh, educated at both and a star success), Modi is Indian educated.”
He quipped: “That is, no doubt, why he chose UK so late in his itinerary. Or it may be that the UK does not matter in the world any more. The UK needs India more than India needs the UK, perhaps.”
Senior Labour Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee (himself educated at Caius, Cambridge), commented: “There is no doubt that this is the start of a special relationship between India and the UK. The reason is clear. Modi has developed a particular affection for NRIs and those in the UK are the most devoted and enthusiastic anywhere in the world. It is through them that our relationship will get even closer.”
The BBC Radio 4 presenter Ritula Shah, speaking in a personal capacity, said that “economically, the US is far more significant than the UK”.
But she also said: “I would argue that for Modi, the important relationship isn’t governmental – it is with the British diaspora. His story resonates with many of the 60,000 people who were in Wembley Stadium – they, too, were poor peasants who have migrated and risen up and improved their personal circumstances. They identify with his vision of efficiency and entrepreneurialism. They don’t care that he isn’t Oxbridge – they are the new rich. They invest in India and are increasingly powerful in this country too. David Cameron sees 60,000 votes – therefore the relationship matters.”
Dr Mukulika Banerjee, director of the South Asian Centre at the London School of Economics, which has had a long relationship with left-wing intellectuals in India, has reservations about Modi and sees the UK-Modi relationship differently.
“The crowds that gathered at Wembley Stadium on Friday night were fans, not citizens,” she said. “And Narendra Modi, the consummate politician, knew this. This was not an audience that was concerned about news in India of mob lynchings and of mass protests in Gujarat by their own impoverished caste members for reservation quotas to address the desperate state of unemployment or the BJP’s debacle in two major elections in 2015. Those were the concerns of the citizens of India who had a stake in the country.
“The fans in Wembley, on the other hand, like fans of any failing football club that played in the stadium, believed Modi was a star player who would finally turn around the fortunes of their club.
“The UK is special for Narendra Modi mainly because it houses a large fan following, drawn from among his fellow Gujaratis, whose money he now wants to attract to India,” said Dr Banerjee.
“The strap line of the Wembley event, ‘Two Great Nations, One Glorious Future’, allowed him to put his controversial past from 2002 behind him and allowed the UK to erase its record of colonial exploitation of India. It was a win-win situation for both PMs (Modi and Cameron).”
This is emphatically not the point of view of Patricia Hewitt, chair of the UKIBC (United Kingdom India Business Council) and trade and industry secretary from 2001-2005 under Tony Blair.
“As I listened to prime minister Modi at the Guildhall, the CEOs’ Forum and Wembley, it was clear that the UK is important to him – but in a different way from previous Indian leaders,” said Hewitt, who came to Newnham College, Cambridge from her native Australia, and had an Indian woman as her director of studies in English.
“We matter because we are the largest provider of the investment capital that India desperately needs and its over-stretched state banks can’t provide,” she continued.
“We matter because of our extraordinary diaspora and the growing ties between universities, colleges and tech-rich companies.
“But the relationship – as both prime ministers stressed – is now one of equals, not dependent on the historic ties between the two countries’ elites. As India becomes a global economic superpower, the UK has to work harder at the partnership – and that is no bad thing.”
There was also analysis from Prof Bashabi Fraser, who is director of the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies (ScoTs) at Edinburgh Napier University.
“Last month, the British Council laun-ched its India Matters report in Edinburgh where I was present on the discussion panel,” Prof Fraser, a Bengali, revealed. “This is a seminal survey which shows how India actually matters for the UK – the former is the third largest economy in the world today and is mo-ving up to second position in the coming decades.
“The point about former prime ministers, who were Oxbridge graduates entering 10 Downing Street is a reality, but it does not in any way deter Mr Cameron from providing an eager welcome to Mr Modi, who prefers to speak in Hindi while addressing the Indian diaspora or Mr Cameron,” she added. “It is a tidal change as English is dislodged from its position as the ‘universal’ language of diplomatic exchange between Britain and India.”
Lord Karan Bilimoria (Sidney Sussex, Cambridge), founder of Cobra Beer, joked: “For Jason Burke of the Guardian to say at the very start of prime minister Modi’s visit that the ‘UK’s lack of real interest to the Indian PM is clear’ is nonsense – I am sure he is eating his words now. I would recommend some Cobra beer to help him wash them down!”
Lord Bilimoria declared: “I have always said that the two countries which the UK has the closest relationship with, more than any others in world, are the US and India. The visit of prime minister Modi showed very clearly how important this relationship is to both himself and David Cameron.
“He does not need to be an Oxford and Cambridge graduate, like his predecessor, to appreciate the importance of the UK-India relationship – he is a unique and powerful leader with a clear vision for his country.
“When speaking in Hindi, he is the best orator in the world, as shown when he spoke for one and-a-half hours without notes in Wembley. He kept everyone spellbound and hanging on his every word, with all of us coming away optimistic and inspired. He is a brilliant communicator.”