Bond of shared interests


FOCUS: Kumar Iyer with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the Oval Maidan, Mumbai, during the royal visit in April
FOCUS: Kumar Iyer with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the Oval Maidan, Mumbai, during the royal visit in April

The relationship between India and the UK is not something that I have just observed for the past three years as British deputy high commissioner, it is also something I have lived and breathed for the last 40 years of my life.

As we mark the 69th anniversary of Indian independence, it is a thriving relationship. It has never been stronger but it is has not yet peaked. Here is why.

My parents were both born in pre-1947 India. My father was born in Pune but his family was from Tamil Nadu, my mother was born in Mumbai but her family was from Kerala – my father sometimes quips that he married a foreigner.

They moved to the UK in the early 1960s, to a country that is very different to the one we have today, leaving behind an India that would be just as hard to recognise. To say foreigners sometimes got a harsh reception in the UK is an understatement – B&Bs would display signs saying ‘no Irish, gays, blacks or dogs’.

The early days were a struggle as they tried to make friends, worked hard and attempted to build a life for themselves. Indians were a very small minority; not well understood, lacking in profile and subject to the suspicion and abuse that often follows ignorance.

However, just as my parents worked hard so did the rest of the Indian community – cornershop owners, restaurateurs, engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, accountants, taxi drivers. A second wave of immigration followed in the 70s via Uganda, who worked equally hard to build a new life, integrate and contribute to the country.

by Kumar Iyer British deputy high commissioner in Mumbai
Kumar Iyer, British deputy high
commissioner in Mumbai

Through the 80s, the prominence grew in more walks of life: banking, entrepreneurs, academia, the odd celebrity, more businesses arrived. Through the 90s, ignorance became a minority sport and in the 2000s the journey was complete – sport, TV, politics, CEOs, civil servants, even diplomats. Today there are 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK. The largest manufacturing employer in the country is an Indian company, the supplier of 20 per cent of our fuel oil is from an Indian company, the richest families in the country are families of Indian origin.

There are more Indian companies investing in Britain than the rest of the EU combined, and last year, India was the third-largest investor in the UK globally. India and Indians are well understood and an indelible part of British society and the British economy.

An equally dramatic change took place in India over the same period. From 1947 through the 1960s and 70s, there was an attrition of UK companies and engagement in India. Economists wrote papers on why India was not growing, but dedicated British companies like Unilever and Standard Chartered remained. Through the 80s and 90s, these were joined by more household names and with the liberalisation of the 2000s, UK companies were at the forefront of India’s big growth spurt and leap forward.

An equally dramatic change took place in India over the same period. From 1947 through the 1960s and 70s, there was an attrition of UK companies and engagement in India. Economists wrote papers on why India was not growing, but dedicated British companies like Unilever and Standard Chartered remained. Through the 80s and 90s, these were joined by more household names and with the liberalisation of the 2000s, UK companies were at the forefront of India’s big growth spurt and leap forward.

Kumar Iyer (right) with Britain’s high commissioner to India Dominic Asquith
(next to him); the UK’s foreign office minister Alok Sharma (second from left) and
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis (left) in July

By the time prime minister Narendra Modi took office two years ago, the UK was the largest G20 investor in India, more than the US, Germany, Japan or China. In every sector British companies now excel and are household names – GSK, HSBC, Vodafone, BP, JCB, Rolls Royce, Arup, WPP, Diageo, the list goes on. Marks & Spencer has its biggest network outside the UK in India, one in 20 people in the organised private sector in India is employed by a British company. India is now, in the words of the IMF, the “bright spot” in the global economy and the UK is central to that as the biggest ‘Makers in India’. India has changed and so has the bilateral relationship. When prime minister Modi visited the UK last year, over £9 billion worth of commercial deals were announced, an estimated 50,000 people came to see him in Wembley and his visit to the Gandhi statue in Parliament Square completed a circle that showed the maturity and strength of the bilateral relationship. The visit respectfully honoured the memory of August 15 [Independence Day], 69 years ago, but underlined that today’s relationship was not about history but about broad-based social and economic bonds – as prime minister Modi described it: “an unbeatable combination”.

However, I still think it is far from its peak. We want London to be the funnel that brings all of the world’s capital to invest in India. The country’s largest provider of housing finance, the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) raised `30bn (£345m) in London last month, an issue that was three and-a- half times over-subscribed. More ‘masala bonds’ are in the pipeline. ‘Make in India and Finance in the UK’ is the new mantra.

However, I still think it is far from its peak. We want London to be the funnel that brings all of the world’s capital to invest in India. The country’s largest provider of housing finance, the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) raised `30bn (£345m) in London last month, an issue that was three and-a- half times over-subscribed. More ‘masala bonds’ are in the pipeline. ‘Make in India and Finance in the UK’ is the new mantra.

Kumar Iyer welcomes the England World T20 squad to Mumbai in March

We have large ongoing programmes to help India’s Smart Cities, with extensive work underway in Indore, Amaravati and Pune. We have secondees from the UK’s Better Regulation Delivery Office (BRDO) sat alongside Indian officials helping them cut red tape and improve India’s ease of doing business. We are working towards a huge Year of Culture in 2017 that celebrates the strong cultural ties across both countries – watch this space. Our flagship Chevening Scholarship programme continues to provide funding to educate India’s brightest and best at Britain’s world-beating universities, and the British Council’s “Generation UK-India” programme will see 25,000 young Britons spend time in India on exchanges over the next five years.

We clearly have more to do. It is not by accident that the Foreign & Commonweath Office has its largest network in the world in India, with over 1,000 staff in 10 locations. It continues to be a priority for the UK government and the energy and effort that has gone into delivering successes from prime minister Modi’s visit to strong bilateral investment, will continue.

I am asked almost daily how Britain’s decision to leave the EU will impact the bilateral relationship. I think the answer is simple – at worst, it will be just as strong as it would otherwise have been, at best, it has the room now to be much, much closer. Our ambition is definitely based on the latter.

We are, in short, two countries that are of enormous social and macro-economic importance to each other, that have grown to treat each other with respect and maturity. An unbeatable combination that has not yet peaked.

Kumar Iyer is also the director general for economics, trade and investment in India. He tweets @DHCMumbai @UKinIndia