13 Mar Trade Delegation to India Chapter Two
Arrive Heathrow airport at 3.00pm for a 6.00pm flight Virgin Atlantic to Mumbai. We have to report to Virgin VIP area.
At the end of the flight (9½ hours) we land in Mumbai and are due to go straight to Hindustan Unilever 9.00am for the PM to be submitted to a Q&A session from employees. We have to be well turned out, even though it will, effectively, be 3.30am UK time after a 9½ hour flight! So, before I get on flight I decide to shave in the facilities. This means that I then have my shaving foam with me when I go through security, which is confiscated. For the next three days I shave with hand soap!
The gate where we board the plane is turned into a temporary VIP area, with tea and coffee and rather fine sandwiches and cakes on offer. I decide to start my networking. I spot Greg Barker, Minister for Business Engagement with India. I introduce myself to Jinoos Shariati, Greg’s PA and Greg. I say I am going to Bangalore and tell them a bit about what Steps do. Greg says “There’s quite enough drama in Westminster already!” I have been in email contact with Jinoos over the last week and Mohan Madgulkar and I have been invited to Greg’s reception hosted by the British High Commission in Bangalore on Thursday evening.
We board the plane. Virgin Atlantic. SME’s in economy, and some of the big cheeses. I spot Dr Angela Strank, Vice President, Head of Group Chief Executive’s Office BP and Peter Simon, founder of Monsoon.
About an hour into the flight I spot Tim Luke the PM’s Senior Adviser for Business, Trade and Innovation coming down the aisle with the PM in tow. Tim asks me who I am (he’s not asking everybody, please note!) I say I’m Robbie Swales from Steps. He says “Steps! Good. Here’s the PM”
PM “So where do you fit into all this?”
I give a brief and succinct account of Steps and how well we’re doing in India.
PM “Do they all start singing and dancing after ten minutes?”
I reply: “No PM we discourage that”
PM “You should come and do some drama with the Cabinet”
Robbie “Of course Prime Minster, we’d love to” I say (while restraining myself from jumping to attention and saluting, as I was taught in Army Cadet Training at Public School.)
Monday 18 February, Mumbai
We land at 8.30am at Mumbai. We get off before the PM. I take this picture of him coming down the steps of the plane.
We all then get in coaches ready for the onward journey. The road has been cleared between the airport and Hindustan Unilever. Ten minute journey. At Unilever we go to a big room with rows of seats and a stage – the PM gives a briefing about the trip and the fantastic opportunities we can create through an effective partnership between India and the UK. He also talks about ‘our common history – both countries are very diverse religiously and racially, and we both suffer terrorism’. These themes come up again as I hear him give six speeches over the two days. It is when we are at Hindustan Unilever I realise that the UK needs India at the moment more than India needs the UK!
We leave Hindustan Unilever in a road convoy of PM car and protection squad and us all in a fleet of four buses. The roads are cleared by the police for the 12 mile journey to the Taj Palace Hotel in the South of Mumbai. The route is lined with police. We appear to cause major road chaos due to traffic being stopped make way for us, but it’s fun! I have spent hours stuck in Mumbai traffic, so it was a special journey for me.
After an afternoon site visit and some ‘downtime’ at the Taj Hotel, we head off that evening to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalays Museum (It’s previous name was the Prince of Wales Museum, which is what most Bombayites still call it) for a reception on the grass outside the museum. There is no alcohol served and I ask a group of Indians about the lack of booze -they tell me it’s because of the grass! The what? The grass – apparently that’s why there can be no alcohol and why the location is seldom used for parties! (Seriously – I still don’t get the ‘No booze because of the grass’ story…) We are there as the British Museum Mummy’s Exhibition is in the museum. BP are hosting the evening. Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum is there. (I speak to Neil in Delhi and establish that he knows Veronika Harris very well, our client at the V&A.)
Speeches: Bob Dudley CEO of BP, Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and MD Reliance (one of the ten wealthiest people in the world) and then another speech from the PM focusing on “the biggest trade delegation to India ever.” I leave at about 8.15pm and walk back to the hotel, I don’t wait for the coach. I know this bit of Colaba very well, having stayed here about a dozen times. Get to bed by 9.00pm absolutely knackered. We have to leave the hotel at 6.00am in the morning!
Read More about Robbie’s trip: