A few weeks ago at the Scottish National Party’s Spring Conference, something quite unusual happened. It was not the focus on liberal and social issues. It wasn’t that the thousands of party members gathered clapped in unison whenever a speaker mentioned Scottish independence. Instead, it was that a fringe event was organised to explore deeper Scotland-India relations.
It was the first time SNP had formally explored party interest in establishing a special interest group focused on developing relations with India. The seminar competed with concurrent events on the environment, social security, refugees, domestic abuse and other policy-led discussion forums, but a committed core of SNP members turned up to discuss closer cultural, civic, education and business links.
This follows on from the re-establishment of the Labour Friends of India group earlier this year, led by Rajesh Agrawal, deputy mayor for business of London, and Darren Jones MP. LFI had its heyday more than 15 years ago when its chair at the time, Barry Gardiner MP, presented then chief minister Narendra Modi with a cheque for £1m raised by British charity Sewa International for victims of the Gujarat earthquake.
Once the Conservative government of PM David Cameron came into power in 2010, LFI’s foothold in the Indian community fell precipitously, and the Indian vote transferred away from Labour. Conservative Friends of India was established and steadily grew its membership. Cameron coined the phrase ‘phir ek baar, Cameron sarkar’ a few years later in a temple in northwest London.
For the first time in Britain, all three major political partners today have a special interest group for India, targeting votes from the British Indian community. This shows the increasing importance of India to Britain. There are subtle differences in approach from each of them. The narrative at the SNP conference was about shared liberal values, civic and educational exchanges. The Conservatives have a consistent focus on business and providing mentorship to younger candidates running for election. The membership base is largely upwardly-mobile entrepreneurs and professionals. LFI is just getting started, but seems to focus on grassroots engagement on business and community issues. The senior buy-in that earlier iterations of LFI enjoyed has yet provided elusive.
The latest Grant Thornton India Tracker shows that Indian companies employ 105,000 people in Britain, generating £48bn in revenues. India remains the country’s third-largest job creator and M&A transactions involving Indian companies hit a record level in 2018. Some of the big transactions included Indian government-owned Energy Efficiency Services Limited acquiring Edina Power Services for £57m and Bharat Forge’s investment of £10m into Tevva Motors. Oyo rooms entered the UK hotel market in its first expansion outside Asia, as did Ola, entering South Wales and Manchester.
London is the European hub of activity for UK-India economic opportunities. New Indian diaspora think tank Bridge India chose London as its first European office with two British Indians trustees out of three, ahead of Germany and Netherlands and there are at least three India-focused tech events during London Tech Week this month. There are almost daily stories of Indian-origin tech businesses flourishing in London, such as blockchain identity management startup MyEarthID or venture capital fund Pontaq, which has signed an agreement with Chinese developers ABP to create a designated co-working space for Indian tech right next to London City Airport.
The tag of ‘India-UK’ has become a sub-industry in its own right. London abounds with consultants and new initiatives claiming to be channelling success in this bilateral corridor. Middlemen see an opportunity for India-UK themed awards ceremonies where the level of sponsorship drives the accolade received. We seem to be at the peak of a cyclical market for such entrepreneurial ventures.
But other initiatives that are bottom-up and entrepreneur-led have seen the most growth, primarily because they have a clearer purpose. Network Capital, the global community of change-makers and entrepreneurs that is a partner for the Atal Innovation Mission, has a flourishing London chapter. The six-month old Bridge India, where I am an Advisor, has generated remarkable interest in connecting diaspora Indians to public policy issues in India. There are several community-led WhatsApp groups in the Tamil, Maharashtrian, Gujarati and other British Indian communities that have shown similar patterns of growth with a mantra of being membership-led, focusing on no politics, just business. Each of these are communities that have grown through diligent growth hacking and with the assistance of social media.
As the political parties try to grow their India special interest groups and Indian government affiliated organisations continue to flourish in the UK, they are engaged in a battle for eyeballs, engagement and therefore relevance in a world of new, social media led communities. It is an exciting time to be an OCI in the UK.
EPG also hosts the annual Asian Achievers Awards, which honours excellence in the British Indian and wider South Asian community. Find out more here.