Modi heads to UK after shock defeat in Bihar polls

Indian PM's trip to include signing of trade deals, defence and security partnership

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address a 60,000-strong crowd at Wembley Stadium during his maiden visit to Britain starting tomorrow aimed at boosting bilateral trade ties and putting behind him a shock electoral defeat in Bihar state.

Ahead of his three-day visit, Mr Modi opened up 15 sectors for greater foreign investment, including defence and civil aviation.

The country's first prime minister to visit Britain in nine years, Mr Modi will have lunch with Queen Elizabeth, an honour usually accorded only to heads of state, at Buckingham Palace. He is also scheduled to speak in the British Parliament and address the Indian diaspora community together with Prime Minister David Cameron.

"(The) city of London is an important financial centre. At a time when we are seeking to attract capital, technology and best practices from abroad, the investment and economic aspects of this visit will be very important," said Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.

A multibillion-dollar package of trade and investment deals is expected to be signed apart from an announcement on a defence and security partnership during the visit as Britain rolls out the red carpet for the leader of one of the world's fastest-growing major economies.

In a Facebook post on Nov 6, Mr Modi noted defence manufacturing would be a "prime focus" in talks.

Britain has been trying to reshape ties with India in recent years. Mr Cameron has visited the country thrice in five years and pushed for a "special relationship", noting that India was a top focus of Britain's foreign policy.

However, bilateral trade has yet to pick up. It amounted to US$14.34 billion (S$20.4 billion) in 2014/2015, down 9.37 per cent from the previous year.

Irritants also remain, such as London's decision to tighten visa rules, which have hit Indian professionals. Britain imposed a diplomatic freeze on Mr Modi for almost 10 years over the Hindu nationalist leader's handling of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, when he was its chief minister. The boycott was lifted only three years ago.

Still, the run-up to the visit has not been entirely without ripples.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was quoted as saying the government would take up with Mr Modi the warning by Moody's Analytics that there has been a rise in ethnic tensions in India.

Moody's noted in its report that provocation of Indian minorities by right-wing elements in the past couple of months had raised ethnic tensions and warned of "a possible increase in violence" that could undermine reforms.

There have been sporadic protests in London against Mr Modi's visit with more being planned. The opposition used the loss in eastern Bihar stated to attack Mr Modi, saying he should tour less and focus more on domestic issues.

Foreign policy analysts say the success of Mr Modi's Britain visit would eventually depend on the deliverables. Last year, for instance, he returned from Japan with US$35 billion pledged for Indian infrastructure development.

"The bilateral relationship needs an injection of dynamism which has been absent in the last 15 to 20 years... We will have to wait and look at the substance of his visit. The main attraction of the British economy is that it is one of the major financial capitals of the world," said Mr Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian high commissioner to the UK.

"The Bihar election has cast a shadow over the visit in terms of how Modi is seen externally and his strength is being assessed internally in India. He has to convince the world that conditions are stable in the country."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Modi heads to UK after shock defeat in Bihar polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe