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India’s Modi Faces Cheers and Jeers In Britain

Prime Minister Of India Visits The UKPrime Minister Of India Visits The UK
Modi will address parliament, woo the City, have lunch with the Queen and stay overnight at Prime Minister's David Cameron's country house. But first things first...Photograph by Rob Stothard — Getty Images

For any world leader, there’s nothing like a good foreign visit to raise the spirits with a bit of statesman-like grandstanding after a particularly nasty week in domestic politics.

Unfortunately for India’s Narendra Modi, there’s nothing like the Internet and a large diaspora to make sure that that nastiness will follow you pretty much to the ends of the earth.

Modi arrived in the U.K. Thursday for his first official visit since he swept to power in the world’s largest democracy on a promise of economic reform and growth last year. But if he thought it was going to be all red carpets and raptures for his now-familiar ‘Make In India’ tub-thumping, he was sorely mistaken. The fallout from an election disaster in India’s third-most populous state last week, and the controversies that led to it, have preceded him.

Already, protesters against the alleged Hindu chauvinism of Modi’s BJP party have projected his image in giant relief onto the walls of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, while the #Modinotwelcome hashtag on Twitter is getting an airing to rival the officially sponsored #ModiinUK one. Sikhs living in Britain have called for a “Black Diwali” (the Hindu festival of light that is coinciding this year with the visit), without the usual pyrotechnics, to protest at the desecration of holy scriptures back in their spiritual home of Punjab.

Modi’s BJP won a nationwide majority last year, but barely one-fifth of the seats in Bihar, a state of over 100 million people, at the weekend. The result followed a campaign that departed from Modi’s past focus on growth and reform and played instead to the kind of Hindu-first social policies that have angered the country’s other religious communities. The defining moment of the campaign came when a Hindu mob lynched a Muslim man it suspected of slaughtering a cow for beef, breaking one of Hinduism’s sternest taboos. Modi was criticized for first remaining silent, then for referring to the murder only as “unfortunate.” As if that weren’t enough, senior party figures also blamed Modi for the electoral defeat in an open letter, perhaps the most brazen act of defiance from members of his party since he took power.

Some suspect that Modi’s new focus on social policies may have been partly motivated by the fact that his economic reforms haven’t been all that successful. Big investors have certainly had mixed experiences with the new regime: Vodafone Plc (VOD) has finally been satisfied in a long-running court dispute over taxes, but Switzerland’s Nestle SA (NSRGY) lost millions of dollars as politicians inflamed a farcical pseudo-health scare over its most popular product in the sub-continent.

“While he is still pushing through with smaller reforms that are outside the purview of the legislature, little headway has been made on the much-needed land, labour, tax and power sector reforms,” says Priyanka Kishore, an analyst with the consultancy Oxford Economics. A good example of how poorly Modi’s better intentions are being implemented, he says, is the plan to introduce a nationwide Goods and Services Tax that is stuck in the upper chamber of India’s parliament, where the BJP has no majority.

Yet, Modi still enjoys support from those at home and abroad who see him as India’s best chance of replicating China’s growth miracle, albeit in its own way.

Officials quoted in U.K. reports indicate they expect some $10 billion of trade deals to be signed by the time Modi heads home. Anglo-Indian trade and investment need a pep: last year’s total trade between the two only amounted to $16 billion, a pitiful sum for a relationship that was once the most important in the world economy.

Indian officials are hoping that the Modi goodwill factor will persuade Britain to reverse its clampdown on educational visas for Indian students. The number of Indian students coming to study in the U.K. has fallen by half in the four years since the government tightened the rules to crack down on abuses of the system. The move hit the U.K.’s higher education system (an increasingly important part of the economy), as well as India’s human capital.

One thing is sure: Modi’s appearance at Wembley Stadium, home of English soccer, will be a huge welcoming. Over 60,000 supporters from the local ethnic Indian population are expected to show up, three times as many turned out for him in New York in September.