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Home  » National » The real story behind the UK Government's decision to engage with Modi
  The real story behind the UK Government's decision to engage with Modi

By Manoj Ladwa

Since the UK Government's historic announcement to engage with Narendra Modi, I have been inundated with calls for details of the inside story. I have also been credited for being the man behind the scenes. I am flattered. The reality ultimately, like with most things in life, was much different and more complex.

No lobbyists: The myth therefore prevailing is that Narendra Modi engaged expensive international lobbyists to persuade the UK Government. There were no lobbyists engaged, despite a beeline of top international “government relations“ firms knocking on Narendra Modi's door claiming they would solve all his problems.

No business pressures: The second myth was that there were some UK business interests that Narendra Modi was stalling on. Only a couple of months ago I asked the previous British High Commissioner to India Sir Richard Stagg at a lunch in London why the UK government had not changed its no-contact policy during his tenure. He was candid enough to say that there had not been any pressure on him to recommend a change. He said the only thing he ever heard from UK companies doing business in Gujarat was how happy they were.

No apology: The third myth is that there was some secret deal regarding an “apology“ by Narendra Modi for the 2002 riots.

This is, for anyone who knows Narendra Modi and knows the politics of India, total nonsense.

Narendra Modi has repeatedly made it clear that the Indian courts should be allowed to dispense justice and if he was in any way found culpable, he should be hanged. The fact is that in the last few months there have been numerous convictions in cases pertaining to the riots. But Narendra Modi has been exonerated on each occasion. The judicial system in India is slow. But it works. The UK government I think has come to understand (and possibly respect) this.

British Gujaratis: A lot of people in the UK are now claiming that they were the ones who made it happen. That they were on the ones who placed the right calls and held the right meetings. Actually they are all right. In fact, if all of the 600,000 British Gujaratis and wider Indian community in the UK said that they had a role to play, they too would be all right. Narendra Modi has overwhelming support from the British Indian community.

God only knows what rock-star frenzy will erupt when he eventually lands on British soil.

The Goodwill Ambassadors: Throughout the last 10 years there have been numerous Goodwill Ambassadors who have stood by Gujarat and Narendra Modi. Some have even suffered personal abuse at the hands of religious and political extremists.

Tallest amongst these, without a doubt, has to be Barry Gardiner MP, a senior Labour party politician and chairman of the Labour Friends of India. Barry has known Narendra bhai (as he refers to him) well before he became chief minister.

In fact it was Barry who took Narendra Modi to 10 Downing Street in 2001. So if Prime Minister Cameron invites Narendra Modi, it won't be his first time.

Barry's landmark speech at the opening session of the 2009 Vibrant Gujarat where he openly chastised the then UK High Commissioner for not being present, has been widely seen in political circles as the turning point where the UK started to take serious note of the situation.

Second Track Diplomats: Also instrumental has been Lord Gulam Noon, a moderate Muslim and previous critic, who along with the ever energetic Gujarat Samachar and Asian Voice UK Publisher/Editor CB Patel, has consistently raised the Gujarat issue with ministers and policy makers in the UK. CB Patel's forthright editorial comments over the years have been the best barometer of community concern over this issue and solid support for Narendra Modi. Ironically, one of Narendra Modi's most prominent critics Lord Meghnad Desai two years ago decided to bury the hatchet and met with

Narendra Modi at his Gandhinagar residence after years of saying that he would never step foot in Gujarat whilst Modi was there. Symbolism in diplomacy matters.

Given the paramount consideration to the families of riot victims that the UK government has placed over the years, even the vociferous Modi-baiter Lord Adam Patel is reported in the Hindustan Times as saying he did not think there was anything wrong now in meeting Narendra Modi. Modi is no longer an untouchable even for his most vehement critics. How tunes change.

Frank Wisner, the former US Ambassador to India and President Obama's point man during the Arab Spring, shortly followed Lord Desai and others continuing the West's second track diplomacy efforts.

Though this political healing process was established and much of the groundwork done under the previous Labour Government, the fact of the matter is that the decision was ultimately made by the present UK Coalition Government.

A large number of Conservative politicians are scrambling to claim personal credit. Bob Blackman, actually was one of the first conservative politicians to openly invite Narendra Modi to the UK (coincidently at a Gujarat Samachar/Asian Voice live broadcast with Narendra Modi last year where Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP also shared a warm exchange with Narendra Modi).

Others who have worked in the background include the wonderful Baroness Sandy Verma and the least credited but highly effective Shailesh Vara MP. The newly ennobled Dolar Popat, has the uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time. I understand he too has made representations very recently through his newly launched Conservative Friends of India.

The senior most Gujarati LibDem Rt Hon Lord Navnit Dholakia, who is deputy leader of his party in the House of Lords was also sounded out, and I know his support for enhancement of relations with Narendra Modi has been crystal clear. Thereby completing the cross party support in the UK for Narendra Modi and his politics of development.

Getting Down to Business: In 2007 Ratan Tata famously declared when singing the praises of Narendra Modi “You must be stupid if you are not in Gujarat“.

This started a chorus of unprecedented praise for Narendra Modi from the captains of India Inc, culminating in Sunil Mital of the multi-billion dollar Bharti Group echoing Mukesh Ambani in predicting (though I suspect also hoping) Narendra Modi would soon become Prime Minister of India.

As the pendulum of influence shifts from the West to the East, such change makers simply could not be ignored especially as Britain needs their investments.

Gujarat sees the lions' share of UK foreign direct investment. Yet for all these years, UK businesses have had to do with the support of a lonely (though highly determined) British Trade Officer in Ahmedabad called Milind Godbole.

With Narendra Modi being invited and wooed at the senior most political and business levels in Russia, China, Japan and Singapore over the past two years, and with several EU partners such as France becoming restless,the UK was coming under increasing pressure to work out a face saving measure to end its self imposed exile from Gujarat.

This is where the UKIndia Business Council and its astute chair the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt MP helped tipped the balance. By making it clear that their members were demanding more engagement with Gujarat, and Patricia Hewitt deciding to lead a highlevel business delegation for Vibrant Gujarat 2013 (where inevitably she would meet Narendra Modi), the table was set. The message was plain and simple if you (politicians) don't, we (business leaders) will.

His own best lobbyist: Ultimately his politics of development and transparency has counted for the most. Narendra Modi's actions are and have always been his own best lobbyist. From the moment he stepped foot in the chief minister's office, almost with a missionary zeal, Narendra Modi set about transforming the way his state was governed, and thereby transforming (literally) the lives of millions regardless of caste or religion.

Whether it was ensuring water for all, ensuring education for every child, ensuring no power cuts, or ensuring that green economics was at the centre of his policies, Narendra Modi in his own no nonsense style ignored the headlines and got on with the job. A colleague of mine Julian Stretch OBE who recently visited Gujarat for the first time, summed it up by saying “In Gujarat, things work“.

Though Narendra Modi never ever asked, it however took someone with guts to take the final call. Contrary to what people may think, such calls are actually dependent to a very large extent on the “man on the ground,“ which in the UK's case is the current High Commissioner, the absolutely pragmatic, Sir James Bevan. He summed up the issues, balanced the competing interests, and made the recommendation. The decision then for the UK government a few weeks ago moved from whether to engage, to how and when to engage. Totally and unashamedly enlightened self-interest and why not?

Last week's UK announcement which focused on development and partnership with India (not just Gujarat) was the clearest indication yet that the UK was acknowledging that Narendra Modi was prime ministerial material and needed to be brought in from the cold. I am still however perplexed with who actually has in fact brought who in from the cold.

What next: Sir James Bevan will visit Gujarat very soon, and no doubt will get a resoundingly warm Gujarati welcome. He may well announce that a much needed British Deputy High Commission will be established in Gujarat. Narendra Modi will win a thumping majority in the Assembly elections in December.

The UKIBC will lead a big business delegation to Vibrant Gujarat. UK politicians will scramble to kiss the hand of Narendra Modi during a UK visit at some point next year. The Indian courts will be left under the watchful eye of the world to continue to dispense justice for the victims of the riots. And Narendra Modi will move to the centre stage of Indian politics to have a shot at becoming India's most eagerly awaited prime minister in a generation.

(Manoj Ladwa is the chair of the UK Labour Party Community Engagement & Empowerment Forum. He is a well-known practicing English solicitor and Indian advocate)

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