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UK plays Gujarati card in wooing game

Narendra Modi greets Nick Clegg in New Delhi on Monday. (Reuters)

New Delhi, Aug. 25: Britain’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg knows the Chinese, French and Russians have beaten him in visiting India to woo Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But today, Clegg publicly unsheathed a usually covert weapon in his sales pitch for British firms here.

Joining Clegg on his three-day visit to India is veteran Gujarati-origin British politician Lord Navnit Dholakia, a key behind-the-scenes lobbyist who facilitated the 2012 thaw between the UK and Modi, who Britain treated as a pariah for a decade after the 2002 riots.

Appointed by Clegg as his “India business adviser” just days before this visit, Dholakia is officially assisting the British No. 2 in identifying areas where the two nations can collaborate in trade and industry.

But it is his leadership of a Gujarati-British community that largely backed Modi’s election campaign, and Dholakia’s personal role in ending Britain’s decade of acrimony with the Indian Prime Minister that officials on both sides acknowledge as his biggest attribute.

“I know some are calling it Gujarati diplomacy, but if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with utilising Lord Dholakia’s immense contribution to bringing these two nations closer as we start a new chapter with Prime Minister Modi,” a British official had told this correspondent a few days back. “We’re proud of that contribution.”

Clegg, who also met finance and defence minister Arun Jaitley today, is the highest-ranking British leader to visit India since Modi took over as Prime Minister.

British foreign secretary William Hague and chancellor of the exchequer George Osbourne had visited New Delhi early July. But by then, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had already met Modi and tried to gain an early-mover advantage in trade ties with the new Indian government.

Already unhappy about losing a Rs 66,000-crore deal for advanced fighter planes to the French, the British government has over the past three years displayed what borders a gambler’s desperation to get back the money it was denied on other deals. Prime Minister David Cameron has visited India thrice in the past four years — without a single reciprocal visit by an Indian Prime Minister in the same period.

On this trip, Clegg will head to Mumbai and Bangalore after Delhi to lobby Indian business leaders for opportunities in joint collaboration. UK energy secretary Ed Davey is also accompanying him.

But it is Dholakia who has emerged the centre of diplomatic attention because the prominence Clegg has given him on the trip is unusual, Indian officials said.

“There’s nothing wrong at all in Lord Dholakia or any adviser accompanying the visiting dignitary, but his prominence is unusual given that he is not a government representative,” an official said.

But Dholakia is no ordinary adviser.

He is deputy leader of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and among the senior-most South Asian politicians in Britain.

In mid-2012, Dholakia played a critical role in convincing Clegg and the Liberal Democrats — ruling in a coalition with the Conservative Party — that Britain ought to woo Modi, this correspondent has independently confirmed.

Labour politicians Lord Meghnad Desai and Keith Vaz helped neutralise their party, while Conservative leaders like Baroness Sandip Verma and Lord Dolar Popat were key proponents of better ties with Modi within the party leading the government.