UK sets up Monday date with Modi

Our Special Correspondent

New Delhi, Oct. 18: Britain's high commissioner in New Delhi Sir James Bevan will call on chief minister Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar on Monday, ending his country's diplomatic freeze with the Gujarat government.

Diplomatic sources termed the visit an "ice-breaker" because this is the first time that a British envoy would be calling on Modi since the 2002 riots. "There is no specific agenda, the chill needs to thaw and this is the intention," a source said.

Gujarat government sources confirmed Bevan's October 22 call-on but added that more such links needed to be established before there could be a "substantive breakthrough" in Britain's relations with their state.

In Gandhinagar, chief secretary A.K. Joti was quoted as saying that the high commissioner would also interact with senior officials. "It's a courtesy visit and, during the meeting, the two dignitaries will be discussing a range of mutual issues like trade, business, industries and investment."

Modi had become a pariah to the West after the 2002 pogrom. America had denied him a visa, while the 27-nation European Union declared him persona non grata.

Britain did not officially pass strictures against Modi but protests by rights groups marred his 2003 visit and he was forced to cancel a 2005 trip because activists tried to get an arrest warrant issued against him.

Recently, however, the recession-hit UK had indicated that it was looking forward to resuming ties with Gujarat because of the opportunities it offered to British investors.

Diplomatic sources emphasised there was no political sub-text to the decision, but Delhi's political circles had interpreted it as a sign of Modi's "enhanced" profile and a recognition of the possibility that he could be a "serious" national player after the next parliamentary elections.

Hugo Swire, the UK's foreign office minister who last week announced the renewal of relations, had made it clear that his country was still concerned about securing justice for the victims of the post-Godhra massacre who included two British nationals of Gujarati origin.

The diplomatic and Gujarat government sources, however, stressed that the riots would not cloud the meeting between Modi and Bevan because the envoy had "no intention" of raising the issue of securing justice.

The diplomatic sources said once Britain was "convinced" that courts in Gujarat were on the job and had convicted dozens of accused, including a prominent BJP leader, it felt the matter of justice need not "impair" relations with Modi.

The US and the EU have yet to reconsider their refusal to engage with Modi. Shortly after Britain's move, the German ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, said his country's position remained unchanged and unaffected by Britain's decision.

Steiner added that Britain had informed Germany before making its announcement.