I remember when Narendra Modi went to the United States soon after he won his resounding majority in the Indian general election last year; the first person to do so in over three decades. I saw the grand welcome given to him by the Indian community in the US and the event in Madison Square Garden, with almost 20,000 people there, and I watched with awe.
We expected Prime Minister Modi to come to the UK soon afterwards, but realised that, in politically pragmatic terms, he was only ever going to visit after the UK general elections. Sure enough, he arrived six months after David Cameron’s victory.
It may be his 29th trip abroad, but this has in many ways been the most prominent of all his overseas trips. He followed weeks after President Xi, a head of state (which Narendra Modi is not) and in under three days he packed in an extraordinary programme — comparable, and in some ways better than, that of a head of state. Like a head of state he addressed both Houses of Parliament, with hundreds of Peers and MPs attending, even in recess, to listen to him. Prime Minister Modi was the first sitting Indian Prime Minister to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster and he addressed us in the same room as President Xi — the grand and beautiful Royal Gallery.
Afterwards, he addressed the who’s who of the British business community at the Guildhall at an event hosted by the Lord Mayor, just as a head of state would have done, and he also had lunch with the Queen, as a head of state would be hosted by Her Majesty. But to top it all, he bettered every head of state who has visited this country in recent memory, by addressing a 60,000 strong Indian community in a dynamic event at Wembley Stadium — introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron himself — more than double the size of the Madison Square Garden event in New York!
I was present at each of the three speeches he made in London, and each one of them clearly spelt out not only his vision for India, but his genuine commitment and optimism for UK-India relationship. Narendra Modi stressed very clearly that he sees the partnership as one of equals, going so far as to use his wristwatch to demonstrate the closeness of UK-Indian ties and how inseparable and uniquely attached we are. He showed how if you read the time in the UK and then turn your wristwatch upside down, you will see the time in India — something that happens in no other countries. What is more, in each of his speeches he emphasised how the relationship goes far beyond the £9bn worth of business deals outlined during his visit, noting the strength of our relationship in a variety of aspects, including: food, sport, culture, our two countries’ joint fight against terrorism on a global level and the fact that we conducted three joint defence exercises in the last year alone. We may accept Chinese investment in our nuclear power plants, but I don’t foresee any joint military exercises between Britain and China occurring in the near future.
Last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Britain’s relationship with India, when Sir Thomas Roe presented his credentials to the Mughal Emperor Jehangir in 1614. As Prime Minister Modi said, a lot of water has flown under the bridge in the meantime, but 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 and for Jason Burke of the Guardian to say on 12 November 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.
Lord Karan Bilimoria is Founder and Chairman of Cobra Beer, Founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and President of the UK Council for International Student Affairs.