President Pratibha Patil touched down in London on Monday on a three-day State visit to the United Kingdom seen here as a fusion of glamour, star power and business — in that order.
The bulk of the glamour quotient will be provided by the British monarchy led by Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen annually extends only two international invitations, which explains the importance accorded to the current Presidential state visit.
On the other hand, there are many claimants to star power, most of it Indian. Monday night saw celebrity NRI invitees, including the dozen or so Lords of Indian origin, flock to a dinner hosted in the President’s honour by the Indian Commission. On Thursday, when Ms. Patil winds up her tour, some of India’s best known names in sports, among them Abhinav Bindra and Sania Mirza, will be in attendance to witness the Queen’s baton relay launch for the 14th Commonwealth Games being held in New Delhi in 2010.
To be sure, the British royals no longer command the respect and authority they did 19 years ago when an Indian President last visited the U.K. And yet Ms. Patil visits the U.K at a time when the monarchy is thought have made a remarkable recovery from the downslide registered following Princess Diana’s rebellion, and the public grieving and anger over her death. The Queen, who was at the receiving end of this unprecedented ire, currently enjoys an approval rating of around 80 per cent.
That the Presidential visit has ignited the Indian media in the U.K is evident from the blaze of breathless publicity around the visit and the column inches devoted especially to the ceremonial welcome scheduled at the Windsor Palace on Tuesday. Ms. Patil will drive into Windsor Castle in a horse-drawn carriage escorted by Prince Charles. It has been reported that the Queen wants nothing left to chance — she has briefed herself well on the Indian President’s tastes and preferences, ensured that the food will be British vegetarian, and arranged a viewing of a royal collection of interest to India at the White Drawing Room. Among the rare items on display will be a shawl woven by Gandhi as a wedding gift to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Ties at its best
On the business and strategic side, Indian officials point out that Ms. Patil is visiting the U.K at a propitious time — when India-U.K. relations are the best they have ever been. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Tony Blair said as much when they met in September 2005 following the “upgradation” of the relationship consequent upon the signing of the 2004 Strategic partnership between the two countries.
In March 2006, the British government published a White Paper outlining the forward plan for British Diplomacy, which positioned India as a “global player with significant influence along with China, Japan and Russia.”
Since then the British government has reiterated that it strongly backs India’s candidature for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, and is keen on having India as a partner of the European Union.
Clearly, India’s own standing in comparison to the U.K. has contributed to this recognition. The U.K. entered a recession period in 2008 for the first time since 1992. As of June 2009, its economy had shrunk by 5.6 per cent compared to the previous year. The U. K. registered a negative GDP growth of -0.8 per cent as against India’s 6.5 per cent.