Narendra Modi, a man who began life selling tea on Gujarat railway platform, today presides over the world’s largest democracy with the biggest electoral majority the nation has seen in three decades. The message from modern India is clear: the entrepreneurs are coming.
That George Osborne and William Hague’s two-day trip to the world’s second most populous country has come so soon after the new Prime Minister’s victory is a reassuring sign that the British government takes India’s potential seriously. Now it’s up to British businesses to rise to the challenge.
According to the ONS, the UK now exports £15bn outside the EU compared to £11bn within it, a mirror image of 2011’s figures. But while the numbers are encouraging, they still leave much to be desired.
The UK still exports more to Sweden (a nation of fewer than 10 million) than India, a country that is home to more than one in six of the world’s population. While some may put this down to a recent lull in Indian economic growth, that certainly hasn’t stopped Germany (who's exports to India are more than double the UK's) or Switzerland (where they are more than triple).
As the Modi administration hacks away at the overregulation that has traditionally strangled growth, it will be paving the way for the rise of an emerging market superpower to rival even China. British firms need to recognise that if they don’t act now they are sure to be left behind.
What frustrates me is that so much of the work has already been done to pave the way for greater cooperation between our two countries. India, after all, is a nation where English is widely spoken and cricket is the national pastime.
Growing up in India “Made in Britain” was the ultimate mark of quality. This is a message that still resonates with many modern Indians, and not without reason. Britain boasts excellence in just about every field, from engineering to aerospace, automobiles to architecture, opera to accountancy.
Nor is this excellence limited to London alone; Cambridge is a world-class hub for technology, Nissan’s Sunderland assembly plant is the largest in the UK and my own business, Cobra Beer, brews its larger in partnership with Molson Coors at the nation’s largest brewery in Burton upon Trent.
I spend a good deal of time travelling around Britain, meeting entrepreneurs who are continuing Britain’s proud legacy of innovative business. But, while their quality is beyond question, I always feel a twinge of disappointment at how few hands go up when I ask how many of them have considered expanding to India.
British businesses need to have the ambition to think of their commercial potential on a global scale. We have a unique opportunity to provide the infrastructure and services that India will need as it’s economic machinery gathers momentum, and in a world where the balance of commercial power is shifting it could be the key to ensuring that Britain maintains its seat at the top table of the world.
Of course, the onus is not on the private sector alone to lead the march of Anglo-Indian economic co-operation. And while the Chancellor’s trip to India is an important statement of intent for the UK economy, he would do well to look closer to home if he truly wishes to foster greater links with the sub-continent.
British universities are one of our nation’s greatest assets. Institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE and Birmingham (of which I am proud to have recently been appointed Chancellor) are standard bearers for UK excellence the world over. Yet, last year for the first time in our nation’s history, the number of overseas students in UK higher education dropped. That includes as 25 per cent fall in the number of Indians being educated in British universities.
The coalition government, pursuing its simplistic target of reducing UK immigration to the “tens of thousands” while continuing to include students in net immigration statistics, has had a large part to play in this shift. According to an NUS poll this year, 51 per cent of international students feel the UK government to be unwelcoming. It’s a worrying state of affairs.
Action that could be taken immediately is the reintroduction of the post-study work visa – shamefully scrapped by the government several years ago. I fought for the legislation's introduction hoping it would help Britain's universities not only to attract the brightest and best, but to keep them in the UK. That work is now swiftly being undone.
Yet it is not just Indian scientists, mathematicians, engineers and doctors, that Britain's economy needs, it needs the friendships that universities forge. As someone who was born in India and came to Britain to study I know first hand that the international bonds of friendship that one forms at university can last generations. The US educates more world leaders than any other nation. This automatically gives those nations a powerful link with the US. We should be fostering those same links through our own foreign students.
We are on the brink of India’s decade, let’s just hope that the Chancellor will be the first of many Britons touching down in Delhi to make sure the UK has a central role to play.
Lord Bilimoria is chairman of Cobra Beer, a member of the Prime Minister of India’s Global Advisory Council and founding chairman of the UK-India Business Council.