UK-Bengal Relationship: A New Beginning

Rupanjana Dutta Tuesday 04th August 2015 06:12 EDT

Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee visited Britain for the first time, a week ago with 62 member delegation including state ministers, prominent members of the West Bengal business community, and the Vice Chancellor of Presidency University, Professor Anuradha Lohia, to attract British investment to West Bengal.

The trip was somewhat scuttled by the national mourning announced after the death of former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam. This led to cancellation of 3 programmes, including a cultural evening and a press interaction that Ms Banerjee had promised with the local and foreign correspondents, from Indian media, based in London.

She has faced criticism to have selected the trip around the time when British Parliament was in recess, and Parliamentarians were away on holiday including British Prime Minister David Cameron. However, it is believed that Mayor of London Mr Boris Johnson was ready to see Ms Banerjee, but she had to cut her trip short, with the growing emergency situation in Bengal due to cyclone and flooding.

The general consensus, though, is the delegation made a reasonable impression with a combination of simplicity from the Chief Minister and sophistication from the likes of her finance minister, Dr Amit Mitra, formerly secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and Sugata Bose, a Harvard professor who is now a Trinamool Congress MP in the Lok Sabha.

Exclusive interactive panel with FICCI and UKIBC

Dr Amit Mitra hosted a panel discussion for an audience of around 300 and invited several leading business leaders from West Bengal to share their experiences.

Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Chair of the UKIBC said: “I think that the strength of the delegation that the Chief Minister has brought with her to London underlines the seriousness of purpose of the Chief Minister and her government.”

COO of UKIBC Kevin McCole said: "the highly interactive nature of the business conference ... has redrawn the model for how these events are delivered. UK investors were impressed by her can-do attitude. They were also impressed by the message the Chief Minister gave ... It was full of passion, compassion, humility and humour."

Mitra referred to the state having a population of 93 million, its growth in consumption being 3% higher than the national average, the Gross Value Added Growth being 10.48% as compared to India’s 7.5% and that it was the 5th largest economy in the country in terms of Gross State Domestic Product.

Beyond the modest set of memorandums of understanding signed during Banerjee’s visit, the Hinduja Group indicated they plan to invest in three different sectors, including restoration of heritage buildings in Kolkata.

Kolkata’s Heritage Committee may in general have to be flexible on “change of use” of concerned premises to enable financiers to recover their investment.

The Caparo Group, chaired by Lord Swraj Paul, who is originally from Kolkata, declared West Bengal will have “first right of refusal” for a factory to manufacture a comparatively low cost sports car, with technology from Maclaren, who have a Formula 1 team with Honda. What Paul possibly means is West Bengal may have to match concessions that could be offered by other states to clinch the deal.

UK and Bengal sign 21 MoUs

CM Banerjee signed 21 MoUs with Britain in the fields of industry, health, education and urban development.

The MoUs included academic exchange programmes between the University of Cambridge and Presidency University, Kolkata, in the field of Arts and Humanities and between London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Presidency for the study of Bangla language.

In the health sector, a MoU was signed between the Institute of Health and Family Welfare, Government of West Bengal, and the UK's Royal College of General Practitioners for technical support for running post-graduate diploma courses on family medicine.

It also included a technical collaboration for development of micro climate controlled bio domes for "Eco Tourism Township" in Kolkata.

The agreements were signed during a bilateral meeting with Britain's Minister of State for Employment and British Prime Minister David Cameron's Indian Diaspora champion Priti Patel at a reception hosted at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) here.

Ms Patel told in her address: "This is a landmark visit, these MoUs will help bring the UK and West Bengal ever closer, and unleash the potential of our relationship...

"For 34 years, West Bengal languished under Communist rule. The state had tremendous potential, but that potential remained unfulfilled. I am delighted to say that things are changing fast. Today, West Bengal is on the move.

"Under Mamata Banerjee's leadership the state is enjoying a renaissance and its potential is beginning to be realised," said the Indian-origin minister, who had accompanied Cameron to Kolkata in 2013.

"The Prime Minister was impressed. It was clear to him this was a state and a Chief Minister that we could do business with. That's why he invited you (Banerjee) to visit London," she said on behalf of the British Prime Minister, who is on a tour of South East Asia.

Earlier, Cameron in a letter to Banerjee wrote, "I am sorry that my travel plans mean I will not be in London to see you in person. Our relationship with India is a priority for the UK and we look forward to welcoming your Prime Minister to the UK later this year."

Commenting on the personal letter from Cameron, Banerjee responded, "21 MoU's are a good sign of Britain's partnership with Bengal. I thank him for his good wishes."

Floral tribute at Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi statues

Ms Banerjee offered floral tributes to the statue of Rabindranath Tagore at Gordon statue and the new Gandhi statue at Parliament square, that was inaugurated by Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley earlier this year. She also paid floral tributes to Kalam at a small ceremony organised in Taj St James Court Hotel in London on Tuesday 28th July..

A gala Bengal-themed cultural event at the Natural History Museum, which was to include performances by singer Usha Uthup, and Ustad Rashid Khan, was cancelled.

Dr John Stevens, a Leverhulme post-doctoral Fellow at SOAS conducted a special reading in Bengali called "Alo", reading from the original Bengali from Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore, a collection of 157 poems published in 1910.

Bengal CM's visit to Buckingham Palace

Mamata Banerjee on Monday became the first chief minister from an Indian state to get an official reception at Buckingham Palace, Britain’s most iconic address. Prince Andrew hosted an evening tea for the Chief Minister at the house of the monarch.

The Chief Minister had a 40-minute one-on-one interview with Prince Andrew, who described her as “a very dynamic leader, leading a dynamic government, sowing the transformation of Bengal”. The prince, it was learnt, has gifted the chief minister a bag with motifs of Buckingham Palace on it.

Mamata herself said later: “I had been to London once before and have walked past Buckingham Palace, never knowing that I would enter it one day . Prince Andrew gave me a very warm reception, and even came all the way out to see me off. The prince inquired about the changing economic and political face of Bengal and our initiatives around tax collection. He has plans to work with women of Bengal under the aegis of a few of his NGOs.

“I apprised him of all our women-friendly schemes like Muktir Alo (a plan to rehabilitate trafficked women and sex workers willing to leave the profession), and the work we’ve done for the transgender community. Buckingham Palace is a monument which has been at the centre of some of the world’s historic decisions.”

Personalised gift

Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Rembrandt and van Dyck line up the walls of Britain’s most coveted art gallery- the state room of Buckingham Palace. The hallowed walls may soon have another addition: the work of Mamata Banerjee, the artist.

The Bengal Chief Minister gifted a hand-painted work of hers to the Duke of York -Prince Andrew -second son and third child of Queen Elizabeth.

Mamata Banerjee won the heart of the British royal family by carrying with her special gifts for princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. She handed over some clothes to Indian High Commissioner HE Ranjan Mathai for the baby to be passed on to the royal family.

Parallels with Gandhi

The Chief Minister drew comparisons to none other than Mahatma Gandhi on the first day of her maiden visit to Britain, braving a cold, and dark British summer day in her everyday attire: white cotton sari and Hawaii chappals (flipflops), with a casually draped shawl her only concession to the weather.

(A special thanks to - Ashis Ray, Raymedia, extract from his press release has been used in this report)

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