London: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a visit to Britain on Thursday expected to yield trade deals worth billions of dollars, but his arrival was overshadowed by protests over a perceived rise in intolerance back home.
Bruised by his Hindu nationalist party’s election defeat in populous Bihar state on Sunday, Modi is seeking to restore his authority and regain momentum in the drive to foster investment and growth for his country.
Diplomats say deals worth 8-12 billion pounds ($12-18 billion) could be signed during his visit to London, with the Indian leader keen to buy 20 more BAE Systems Hawk trainer aircraft to be made in Bengaluru.
From the British perspective, Modi’s visit is a chance to press for business opportunities in a fast-growing economy and to climb up the diplomatic pecking order, since Modi has prioritized other relationships since becoming prime minister.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has visited India three times since taking office in 2010 in an effort to forge a closer partnership, but Modi is the first Indian head of government to pay an official visit to London in almost a decade.
His visit comes at a time when a debate is raging in India over accusations that Modi is failing to rein in Hindu zealots trying to impose their values on all Indians.
As Modi and British Prime Minister David Cameron shook hands for the cameras outside Number 10 Downing Street, a crowd of about 200 protesters could be heard shouting anti-Modi slogans nearby.
“Our main concern is that minorities are not safe in India,” said Sikh protester Kuldip Singh.
The demonstrators held up banners with messages such as “Modi you are killing Indian democracy” and “Stop religious persecution in India”.
Ahead of his arrival, more than 200 writers including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan signed an open letter to Cameron urging him to raise concerns about freedom of expression in India during his talks with Modi.
About 45 British members of parliament, including opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, signed a motion to debate India’s human rights record.
The British government, however, rolled out the red carpet for Modi, who was greeted in the grand courtyard of the Treasury by a guard of honor wearing ceremonial bearskin headgear.
He was due to have lunch with Queen Elizabeth and witness a fly-past by Royal Air Force aircraft.
After meeting and holding a joint news conference with Cameron, Modi will then address the British parliament, before heading to the Guildhall, a historic building in the heart of the City of London financial district, where he will give a speech to a business audience.
Cameron’s office said Britain would seek to promote London as a center for offshore rupee bonds and Indian companies were expected to announce plans to issue debt denominated in their own currency.
The emotional high point of the visit is likely to be a mass rally at Wembley Stadium on Friday where Modi will address about 60,000 supporters from India’s 1.5 million-strong diaspora in Britain.
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