Published on 31 May 2014 Sections ,

Can Britain do business with Narendra Modi?

As India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi is the leader of the world’s biggest democracy. Britain hit the diplomatic bull’s-eye with the sometimes controversial figure early on: but what’s next?

In October 2012, the British High Commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan, travelled to the Indian western state of Gujarat for an unusual meeting, writes Channel 4 News producer Nishtha Chugh.

In the state capital Gandhinagar, chief minister Narendra Modi awaited his British guest with a number of gifts by his side: among them a Rogan painting made by Muslim artists, produced with a centuries-old craft now rare and dying.

After discussing business, investment and strengthening trade relations between Britain and Gujarat for nearly an hour, the two men shook hands and smiled for the perfunctory photo-op before a curious horde of journalists.

In content the meeting was unremarkable, but in context Britain had just hit the diplomatic bull’s-eye. Showing extraordinary – or lucky – foresight, it had ingratiated itself with a persona non grata who would become India’s prime minister in less than 20 months after pulling off one of the most spectacular electoral victories anywhere in the democratic world.

Even though the landmark meeting was the clearest sign yet that Britain wished to warm up to India‘s potential next leader, it wasn’t full-throated support. In months to come Sir James continued to emphasise that engagement was not an endorsement of a man shunned by the global community.

Taking notice

A self-professed Hindu hardliner, an international pariah until recently, and one of the most divisive political figures in India, Narendra Modi is a man nearly every global leader has taken notice of. Most of them want to know him more and do business with him – and with the vast and rising country he now leads – if they can.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the first few global leaders to congratulate Modi on his historical victory.

“Keen to work together to get the most from UK-India relationship,” tweeted his official 10 Downing Street account. Until last week Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe famously followed only two people on Twitter, one of them his wife. He now follows Modi. Barack Obama has spoken to him twice even before he was sworn in to office, while the French President Francois Hollande has invited him to visit his country “whenever he wished”.

Modi’s success is shocking, his demeanour steely. Inside and outside India, he is loved and loathed with equal passion. However, up until two years ago, the right-wing leader was living in diplomatic isolation after being accused of failing to stop the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat under his watch as chief minister.

The carnage that resulted in the killing of 1,000 people, including three British nationals, saw days of rape, arson and brutal violence including removal of foetuses with machetes from pregnant Muslim women.

Modi’s success is shocking, his demeanour steely.

Human Rights Watch accused the state machinery and police of abetting the killings, subverting justice and protecting the perpetrators. The US, the UK and several EU countries boycotted the leader and refused him travel visas. Critics repeatedly accused Modi of failing to offer genuine apology or express regret over the killings. His apparent conspicuous failure to protect the vulnerable prompted India’s apex court to criticise him as the modern-day Nero.

The international community’s change of heart towards the controversial leader almost overnight is, therefore, more perturbing than promising. But it’s not difficult to see what has catalyzed the change so drastically. At the heart of this prodigious turnaround is Modi’s powerful cult-like persona. Part of the credit goes to the man himself – and to a large extent his PR machinery – who have assiduously cultivated his image of a self-styled reformer and technocrat bolstered by his economic performance in Gujarat.

The rise of ‘Modinomics’

During his 14 years in office as its chief minister, Gujarat’s economy grew three times in size, touching 10 per cent in annual growth, almost double India’s national average and on par with that of China. Careful to promote his technology-savvy image for years, Modi has done well to attract large-scale foreign investment and later adopting development as his perennial buzzword. Thanks to his brilliant PR team, “Modinomics” is a widely recognised term, and now also a book, with a dedicated website.

However, critics warn Narendra Modi’s good economic record, while impressive, is more hype than fact. Other Indian states like Haryana and Maharashtra have done equally well in the past decade but their bosses have lacked the foresight to leverage their economic performance for electoral gains. And it is this hype, they argue, clubbed with his authoritative and no-nonsense administrator image that has mesmerized people both at home and abroad.

Read more: what does Modi's landslide mean for India?

Nevertheless, Modi is now in the driving seat. With his grand promises to replicate Gujarat’s success at the national level, coupled with good governance and sweeping economic reforms, it’s easy to see why India has never looked more enticing to the global investors and governments alike.

For Britain in particular, this could herald a golden period for its bilateral relations with India. According to the recently released The Sunday Times Rich List, Britain’s top three richest men are Indians who have adopted the country as their home. The bilateral trade between the two countries currently stands at £12bn and can be doubled by 2015, claims Business Secretary Vince Cable. The UK recently became the top nation favoured by Indian students to pursue higher studies.

Engaging with Modi’s India

However, for Britain the interest in engaging with Modi’s India is not limited to economics alone. Britain is home to over a million-strong Indian ethnic community, its largest. Leicester, which has the highest concentration of Gujaratis, is the biggest support base in the country for the new Indian prime minister, a Gujarati himself. Cultural ties run much deeper than commerce.

With parliamentary elections less than a year away and the urgent need to win favours with UK’s small yet significant ethnic communities the choices before David Cameron’s government are unmistakably obvious. Commercial, cultural and consular gains take precedence over moral culpability.

In its scramble to renew ties with India under its new charismatic leader the global community’s approach appears conspicuously selective. They want to do business with Modi, the economic reformer, rather than Modi, the Hindu hardliner. But the global leaders would do well to remember that victims of Gujarat are yet to get justice and Modi’s moral culpability for the 2002 pogrom cannot be brushed under the carpet.

The political origins of the proud far-right leader, who is known for his authoritarian tendencies and miniscule appetite for dissent, are steeped in little tolerance for anything that contravenes the ideologies of Hindutva. From homosexuals, religious minorities to Dalits – marginalised groups in India have a very genuine reason to fear his rule.