Half past seven in the evening in the Sapphire Ballroom of the five-star Taj Krishna hotel in the central Indian city of Hyderabad and Boris Johnson is half way through what is clearly, on the third day of his five-day tour of India, a well-practised routine.
There is the gag about Charles Darwin, evolutionary theory and Bromley. There is the reference to London having more bookshops and fewer murders than New York. There is the description of the UK's capital as a city of skill, inventiveness and dynamism and the call for shared prosperity, commerce and exchange in the future. And then Boris, suit jacket tails flapping over the mini samosas and kebabs, circulating among the hundred or so small businessmen who have come to see him talk, is gone.
"He was very charming and had a very good sense of humour," said TR Srinivasan, business development manager for an engineering firm looking to set up an operation in the UK.
Shipra Sharma, who runs an educational institute in the north-western city of Jaipur, had travelled half way across the country for the "networking opportunity".
"I've never seen a local Indian politician talk like that," she told the Guardian. "He had really done his homework. And he was extremely observant too."
Though India frequently inspires simultaneous bewilderment and rapture in visitors, it is rare that the situation is reversed. Johnson, on his first trip overseas as London mayor, has provoked gushing praise: "He doesn't have a rock star image in his country for nothing", wrote Saurabh Shukla, a senior journalist.
Some have mistaken him for Boris Becker, the former tennis player, or for the king of England. Devi Kumar, a hawker of tourist souvenirs who saw Johnson as he toured the India Gate monument in central Delhi on Monday, said she first thought Johnson was Lalu Prasad Yadav, a silver-haired, fast-talking, slightly rotund, populist and extremely controversial 65-year-old Indian politician, before someone informed her that in fact the man in a dark suit was the "president of London".
The official aim of Johnson's trip is "to promote London and further enhance economic links between India and the UK". In between the circling kites in the dawn sun and the elephants with their mahouts performing ablutions, as described by the mayor in an article in the Daily Telegraph written shortly after his arrival in Delhi on Sunday, there has been a temple, visits to universities, cricket on the lawns of the British high commissioners residence and meetings with his counterparts in the seething, polluted metropolis. Men should never try to compare the size of their metro systems, he joked at a press conference with India's urban development minister.
Earlier, at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce in the centre of Delhi, Johnson alternately charmed and astonished another audience of businessmen. After a welcome so sycophantic that even the the 48-year-old politician himself, described as a "statesman on the world stage", looked faintly embarrassed, came Johnson's response with references to Bromley and New York. A question and answer session followed and a "Boris blurt" directed at the French. Referring to a call by a French minister for the world's biggest steel-makers, Indian-owned ArcelorMittal, to leave France, Johnson said that "on a day when the sans-culottes appear to have captured the government in Paris, I have no hesitation or embarrassment in saying to everyone here 'venez à Londres, mes amis'."
The only controversy so far has been Johnson's statements to Indian students at Amity University, south of Delhi, that the recent British clampdown on overseas students and bogus colleges had sent out the wrong signal and could hit the £2.5bn revenue stream that British universities earn from their fees. His comments came only days before Theresa May, the ome secretary and one of the architects of the current immigration policy, herself arrived in Delhi on an official visit.
The last two years have seen a succession of top British officials visiting India. David Cameron has stressed repeatedly that increasing diplomatic, commercial and cultural ties with the former colony is a key foreign policy aim.
Unrelentingly upbeat about the country, Johnson, who even managed to praise the quality of Delhi's foul air, has so far said exactly "what the ... elite here want to hear", said MJ Akbar, one of India's best known newspaper editors. "It's not about deeper Anglo-Indian relations or anything like that, it's just Boris," Akbar said.
Bala Narayanaswamy, a director of Indian market research firm Indicus Ipsos, said Johnson's idiosyncrasies - as well as publicity surrounding the successful London Olympics - were an advantage. "We like the likeably eccentric in India. We like people who are a bit out of whack," he said.
Though many vaunt the success of the commercial relationship, the reality of trade between India and the UK is less impressive. The UK is now the 7th most important destination for Indian goods exports, but last year India, with a population of 1.2bn, received only 1.9% of all UK goods exports. "Maybe the UK brand does need a boost. With the recession our focus did shift to new markets so a reminder that we need to keep some focus on traditional markets too is useful," said Shipra Tripathi, vice chairman of Kirloskar Brothers Limited, India's biggest pump manufacturers and suppliers of key components for firefighting systems in London's Shard tower.
Having flown from Delhi to Hyderabad, one of India's major information technology hubs, on Tuesday, Johnson travels to Mumbai, the commercial capital on Wednesday. There he will see England's cricket team, currently playing a Test series in India, and talk to more business leaders and civic officials before visiting an NGO working with disadvantaged children. Then there are more meetings, a rumoured appearance on a chat show and a long flight home.
Whether the gushing praise or the bewilderment will remain longest after his departure is unclear. One Hyderabad resident at least remained unimpressed by Johnson. Surinder Singh, the 42-year-old doorman of the Taj Krishna Hotel, had been told early in the day that a Very Very Important Person (VVIP) would be coming and that all he had to do was "open the door for him". The brush with mayoral greatness was, however, a disappointment. "I don't know who he was but I do know he didn't tip me," Singh said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © BackBoris2012
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