In his speech to the British parliamentarians and to thousands of the Indian diaspora at Wembley, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to the historical ties binding India to its former coloniser — from shared institutions and laws to an affinity for bhangra. His counterpart David Cameron announced that 2017 would be the UK-India “year of culture”, while speaking of the “great partnership” between the two nations that “extends beyond economic ties to the boards of The Bard and the beaches of Bollywood”. Yet, underneath the rhetorical flourishes and all the pomp that greeted Modi in London — alongside a few prickly questions by the British press on the perceived growing climate of intolerance — the lassitude that characterises the India-UK economic relationship is likely to persist.
To be sure, India and the UK did agree to strengthen ties on defence, anti-terror tactics and climate change measures, as well as strike 9 billion pounds worth of deals, including in areas that track with Modi’s Make in India, Digital India and smart cities initiatives. But there is understandable scepticism over how much of these pledges would eventually be realised. And though Cameron has visited India thrice since becoming prime minister, he has struggled to revitalise bilateral trade, with the UK exporting a marginal, and declining, share of its goods to India, and Indian merchandise forming a negligible portion of UK’s imports. For India, which is focused on manufacturing and investment in infrastructure, opening up to the UK’s best export — services — is arguably not a priority. Then there is the persistent irritant of strict visa rules, which have seen the number of Indian students to the British universities halve since 2010, when the new regulations were imposed. Then there are the long-running tax and payment disputes between UK-headquartered firms, such as Vodafone, and the Indian revenue authorities. None of these pressing disagreements were resolved during the visit, though perhaps the momentum imparted by this high-decibel trip will help in problem-solving. Also, there are some promising initiatives like making London a centre for offshore rupee trading and floating of “masala” bonds by Indian firms.
Ultimately, however, Modi’s sojourn in London is best encapsulated by the Wembley event, which saw both prime ministers trying to woo an increasingly influential British Indian community. If Cameron was encouraging it to defect from its Labour-leaning roots, Wembley was another stop — the biggest yet — in Modi’s diaspora tour, which has seen him hold similar events in New York and San Francisco. Scenes from the rockstar reception at Wembley are aimed at burnishing the prime minister’s image back home, while exhorting overseas Indians to invest in their country of origin.