Modi Tries to Revamp Battered Image in Blighty

It’s tempting to wonder whether Narendra Modi’s crushing defeat in the Bihar state assembly election announced on Nov. 8 has, in a small way, had the sort of catalytic impact on him that India’s financial crash in 1991 had on the then-Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his finance minister, Manmohan Singh.

Rao and Singh quickly opened up the Indian economy in 1991, so the idea is probably over-stating things. Yesterday however, in advance of a visit this week to the UK, his first since becoming prime minister, Modi did try to burnish his flagging image after the Bihar debacle and after 18 months of failing to establish himself as an economic reformer.

The government announced relaxations of foreign direct investment limits and regulations that should have been introduced months ago in areas such as defense manufacturing and banking, real estate management, air transport, media, and some retail stores.

Narendra Modi in Kashmir recently

The timing is significant in connection with the UK visit, which begins on Nov. 13, because Modi’s primary interest is the City of London as a financial center that can provide investment for projects in India. His officials have made sure he spends some time there, and the program includes an address at the City’s Guildhall.

I was told some weeks ago that Modi had three main interests for the visit – one was making a splash in the City, one was lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, which will happen on the 13th, and the third a mega event where he will be cheered by some 60,000-70,000 adulating overseas Indians in London’s Wembley Stadium after the royal lunch.

He is also addressing members of the British parliament, and is being hosted for a night by David Cameron at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence. And there is to be a fly–past by Royal Air Force jets trailing India’s national colors of orange, green and white.

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This is the least that Cameron and the Queen could do after the splendors of a full state visit that they laid on last month for China’s president, Xi Jinping, which included a ceremonial coach ride (above) along The Mall to the palace, and a formal state banquet.

Not everyone was keen on welcoming Xi – Prince Charles is happier in the company of the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile from Tibet in India. But Cameron and his China-enthusiast chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, did not publicize human rights issues or their responsibilities towards China’s former British territory of Hong Kong in their enthusiasm for Chinese investment in projects ranging from high speed railways to (dangerously and inexplicably) nuclear power plants.

There is also considerable antipathy towards Modi, whose controversial record as chief minister of Gujarat during fatal riots in 2002, is still resented – he was shunned by the British government for 10 years.

Gujrat to Surface

There will be protests over Gujarat and other issues during his visit. Last Sunday, which was Britain’s Remembrance Day for those killed in two world wars, an image was briefly projected onto the Houses of Parliament (below) of Modi wielding a sword with a swastika and the words “Modi not welcome” – created by the Awaaz Network that monitors religious issues in South Asia and the UK.

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The UK is far from Modi’s top foreign priorities – the list is led by the US, Japan and China, and he has visited a total of nearly 30 countries since he was elected 16 months ago. A plan for a visit at the beginning of this year was shelved, partly because of the British general election and partly because of a visit to India by President Obama.

It is the first time an Indian prime minister has visited the UK (apart from multi-lateral conferences) for nine years, which is surprising given that there are some 1.5 million overseas Indians in the country with 10 members of parliament and 24 members of the House of Lords of Indian origin. Tata Motors is the biggest manufacturing employer and Modi will visit the company’s Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull.

Cameron has been trying to woo India for some years, making three visits to the country, sometimes accompanied by a posse of cabinet ministries, but to little effect.

Different Strokes

He and Modi have very different backgrounds and, below the surface, one cannot expect the rapport that seems to have developed with Obama. Cameron comes from a posh privileged upbringing in the British shires and jobs in public relations, while Modi comes from a very poor background with a father who ran a railway station tea stall and a life spent in Hindu nationalist organizations and politics.

But Cameron will be a high-profile and generous host, accompanying Modi on much of the visit and introducing him at the Wembley jamboree, where there will be a massive fireworks display marking this week’s Diwali festival of lights celebrations.

This will be by far the largest of a series of overseas Indian pop star-type spectaculars that Modi has addressed in places ranging from New York to Shanghai and Dubai to Sydney. His audiences are part of his political base, especially in the UK where there are estimated to be some 600,000 people from his home state of Gujarat, all with votes or influence on families back in India.

There will be the usual package of announcements that always happen on such visits. Modi has been collecting multi-billion dollar pledges in countries he has visited, and some US$15 billion is expected this week. Included, according to reports, will be an order for 20 Hawk trainer jet aircraft to add to existing orders, telecoms investments, and special bonds for infrastructure projects, plus initiatives on anti-terror measures, economic development and energy and climate change.

But Modi has failed so far to ensure that his ministers and officials follow up on the multi-billion dollar announcements, and skepticism about his real interest in implementation after his trips is developing in various countries including the US and Japan.

The test will be whether announcements of relaxed foreign investment rules herald a new continued push for economic and manufacturing investment, or whether they are just a knee-jerk image-boosting reaction.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s homepage