UK-India: a relationship steeped in history and future potential

Patricia Hewitt sounds like she has found her dream job.

Her role as chair of the UK India Business Council (UKIBC) allows her to draw on her many experiences as a senior British cabinet minister, as well as her lifelong affinity with all things Indian. And fresh back from a weeklong trip to Delhi – she visits the country at least five times a year – Hewitt’s passion is more than enough to light up a grey and wet September afternoon in London.

“I was born and brought up in Australia so I have a natural affinity for the Asia-Pacific region,” she admits, “but I just think that India has become the most exciting knowledge-driven economy in the world, and when I left government I was clear that I wanted in my new life something that was India-facing.”

Her office is just down the road from the Palace of Westminster. It was there she rose to become a high-profile cabinet minister – as health secretary and trade and industry secretary – but her fascination with India predates her time in the political arena. “I was born in Australia and came over to the UK as an undergraduate to study English Literature at Cambridge,” she recalls. “And I discovered, to my delight as it turned out, that the director of studies at my college was an Indian woman, a wonderful scholar, and we would sit in her freezing study and talk about Sanskrit literature and this was when I fell in love with the idea of India.”

India’s magnetic allure did not fade away following the completion of her studies; on the contrary, new avenues through which she could pursue her interest soon materialised on the horizon. First, as general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties, she led campaigns around immigration laws that brought her into contact with the South Asian community. “I developed close links with the community and also the city of Leicester, home town of my husband and blessed with a huge Indian diaspora of its own,” she says. “And then I ended up as one of its members of Parliament.”

Destination India

Home to more than one billion people and an electrifying melting pot of peoples, cultures and races, India is a country like no other. Recent years have seen a wave of economic expansion and progress ripple across its states, cities, towns and villages, but much more remains to be done. India’s may be an economy that has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years, but the poverty-stricken lives of many of its citizens are a testament to progress yet to be made – something that the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, would readily admit.

Modi, who enjoyed a landslide election victory in May 2014, came into office on a wave of high hopes and optimism. Progress, though, has been slow. Much legislation remains stalled and plans to bolster economic and industrial growth have yet to play out as expected. Hewitt points out that he hasn’t always been able to rely on top-quality support and advice from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which was itself based on a Whitehall model of operations.

“The IAS has some of the world’s most impressive officials, but there are also others who are the inventors and masters of red tape,” she says. “At their best you’ve got people who are superbly intelligent and have that extraordinary Indian gift for mathematics and data-driven processes, combined with an ethic of public service and commitment to the public good that is wonderful – but there need to be more of them. Most observers and many in the Modi government would say, privately at least, that they are struggling because they don’t have enough good people who understand what they are trying to achieve and know how to achieve it, ensuring that the change and transformation really goes all the way down – which is the usual challenge in any government.”

Modi, himself a former state chief minister, has been keen to ensure that India’s states – all 29 of them and its seven union territories – are fully aligned and receptive to his reform programme. “He is brilliant at slogans and came up with ‘Competitive and Cooperative Federalism’,” says Hewitt. “I’ve been watching it over the last six to nine months and it’s real. The ‘Competitive’ is essentially every state government knowing that they have to improve on the ease of doing business, they have to attract inward investment and they have to generate jobs. And the ‘Cooperative’ is the centre cooperating with state governments to back them and help them achieve their objectives. When investors come to India they don’t invest in India, they invest in the states where they make their investment, and so the central government has to have the states onside.”

The governance of governments

Hewitt’s experience at the top tier of the UK government means she is well placed to offer comment and advice on India’s approach. No stranger to the cabinet table she, for years she was a high-profile fixture of Tony Blair’s governments, serving in senior ministerial positions and widely seen as one of his closest allies. “My sense is that Modi and his colleagues are doing some very smart institution-building but they are frustrated about not having yet a bureaucracy that is really geared up from top to bottom to deliver what they need,” she says. “So they’re making progress but it is taking time – and longer than everyone hoped, including them.”

Looking back at her own time in the ministerial hot seat, she says that the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry were very different but, at the same time, shared a strong need for internal reform. “For example, about three months into my time at the Department of Health, the entire top team came to see me and revealed that the department had overspent on the previous year’s budget,” she recalls. “It had taken months before the numbers came in and they discovered the problems. They hadn’t expected it because the financial systems weren’t up to the job. I was by no means the only cabinet minister who found, completely unexpectedly, that they were having to focus inwardly and reform their organisations rather than getting on with implementing change out in the real world.”

For Hewitt, achieving public impact does not – ideally – require a micromanaging approach. More important is setting the direction of travel. “I try and combine real clarity about where we want to be in three or five years, depending on the issue, and identifying the end goal,” she explains. “And then within this strategic framework, set the milestones and get into the detail when required. This is a very good way of finding out who you can really trust and whether the officials have really thought through their proposals.”

Another aspect of ‘the Hewitt approach’ was a reliance on multiple sources of information, particularly important when overseeing an organisation as vast as the UK’s National Health Service. “I worked out the top people I really needed to get to know and I rang them on their mobile phones during my first weekend in the role,” she says. “This gave me the chance to establish early on some really good personal relationships with a lot of the key people. And through them, and their own personal networks, I could use this to get information and intelligence from people out and about in the system – different sets of eyes and ears offering me multiple sources of information.”

Now, though, Hewitt is fully focused on her role at UKIBC, as well as her other positions in what is a varied portfolio career. Does she miss life on the frontline of politics? “It was a tremendous privilege to be part of Tony Blair’s New Labour government,” she concludes, “but I always knew that nothing lasts forever. And I’m thrilled to now be in a position where I can make a difference and really help take the UK-India relationship forward.”

Her smile, as she says this, speaks volumes. So, too, do her travel plans – another trip to India is already in the diary.

 

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