Lord Green, the trade minister, has made no bones about his commitment to bilateral trade between the two countries. “We are on track to double our trade with India by 2015,” he said last week. “The natural fit between the UK and Indian economies offers huge opportunities for commercial partnerships.
“India has identified what it needs to realise its economic ambitions and the UK is uniquely placed to help meet these needs with world-class technology and expertise.”
Iyer is no green civil servant trying to make a name for himself. He’s a hard-nosed businessman who carved his career at Boston Consulting advising the CEOs of media and retail giants before landing a job at No 10 co-ordinating the response to the economic crisis for Gordon Brown. Before his job in Mumbai he was overseeing the Government’s stakes in RBS and Lloyds.
“I’m no career diplomat,” he explains. “I have spent most of my life in the private sector and it’s this commercial expertise that I’m hoping to bring to the table.”
Iyer hopes to convince the business community that he understands their needs through his first project, the UK India Business Centre initiative. Last week, he launched the first centre in Gurgaon. The space has been part-funded by the Government and is a sort of “crash pad” for UK businesses when they first arrive in India.
“It’s an office space that can be rented out by the month or by the quarter,” says Iyer. “This is somewhere a small business can physically go and find a phone, an internet connection and a printer. New arrivals can base themselves there until they feel confident enough to take on their own property, which is a big investment.”
If the business centre proves successful, it will be the blueprint for several more around India. “But I’m not spending more money on these things until I know they work,” says Iyer. “I don’t want to be a glorified landlord. The next one will be in Bangalore if all goes to plan.”
Aside from his work on the business centres, Iyer is very keen to use his new diplomatic status to lobby the Indian government on issues that affect bilateral trade.
“There is lots of state regulation,” he says. “I want to work towards a European trade agreement that would extend ‘single market’ principles to India.” Iyer is hoping to build an association with the UK where the two countries can trade with each other without restrictions or tariffs.
The UK Government is showing its support of this goal by securing the support of the Home Office. Some 88pc of all visa applications from India are approved and that number is significantly higher for Indian business leaders. “It’s really important that keeping Britain open for business remains on the agenda,” Iyer says.
It is also in India’s best interest to do business with the UK. Its trade deficit narrowed to a five-month low in August after merchandise exports clocked double-digit growth for the second month in a row. This has helped to bolster the battered rupee – a trend that the Indian government would like to see continue.
Iyer is backing some innovative strategies to ensure that British firms get a fair crack at contracts in India. “It’s very hard for small companies to keep on top of what’s going on in India,” he says. “Even the medium-sized ones struggle.
“There is a system here whereby Indian companies offer contract tenders in local newspapers. Sometimes they are in English, sometimes Gujarati. We keep an eye out for these tenders and add them to a central database, in English, so that UK SMEs can find them.”
In addition, Iyer likes to think of himself as a corporate matchmaker, setting up meetings between companies arriving in India and possible clients as well as setting up networking events where interested businesses can meet expats and learn first-hand what it’s like living and doing business in India. “That can be more valuable than any formal advice,” he says.
Iyer is confident he can help build stronger ties between India and the UK. He has lived and worked in both countries, speaks several Indian languages fluently as well as English and is well-versed in the cultural differences between the two countries.
“You’d be surprised how often people arrive and expect India to be just like the UK,” he explains. “True, we have the same legal system and there are more English speakers in India than in the whole of the UK, but you have to be prepared for the culture shock.
“It’s extremely hot here and it’s not always easy to get around. This week we had the Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival where big idols of the Indian god Ganesh are processed down the streets and marched into the sea.
“It’s quite a spectacle and one which shows that India is a country of many contrasts, colours, and religions. But all the roads ground to a halt. You would never find this in the UK.”
Iyer is confident that Britain has already got the edge on other European countries when it comes to building strong ties with India. “My diplomatic colleagues keep looking at what we’re doing and saying: ‘That’s interesting. We want to try that’,” he laughs. “It’s safe to say the UK is ahead of the curve.”