During the heydays of the British Raj, the colonial establishment used to abandon the searing hot plains in May and make a ritual beeline for the cooler hills to weather over the Indian summer. And what passed for India’s elite, like army officers, academicians and the odd touring aristocrat also followed in the footsteps of the government, making the rickety Himalayan town of Shimla one of the most happening haunts of the British empire during the hot season. It was a time for promenading, gala parties and extramarital affairs. In modern times though, it is the Indian mega-rich who undertake a similar migratory pilgrimage from June to August, when temperatures in tropical India rarely go below 35° C, not to Shimla but to the former imperial capital London especially to its most exclusive quarter, Mayfair. These super-rich Indians have, for instance, in the past 12 months alone bought up something like UK£ 1 Billion worth of property in Mayfair, with an estimated 3,000 Indian families taking up seasonal residence in the famous London district. NRI Achievers reports.
This is not any entirely new phenomenon — rich Indian Nabobs and Maharajas have shopped and owned houses in Mayfair for a century and more. According to Peter Wetherell, the CEO of Wetherell Estate Agents, ‘Indian investments into luxury properties in London goes back to the Edwardian era … some of India’s richest Princes owned mansions in the capital …’ Toquote an example, he cites the Nizam of Hyderabad, who owned Hyderabad House on Palace Green in Kensington, and purchased properties for his family in Mayfair and Belgravia. Mr Wetherell goes on to say: ‘In more recent times, when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s Indian business community from the country in 1972, some 27,200 people emigrated to Britain, with the wealthiest families buying up homes in May fair, St Johns Wood and Holland Park …’ Mr Wetherell adds: ‘The British and inter national based Indian business community are extremely successful and adroit. Many have chosen to invest in Mayfair, especially in Grosvenor Square, as they can see that the district is currently undervalued compared to neighbouring locations such as Knights bridge and Belgravia. There has been a spec tacular 314 % rise in sales values in Grosvenor Square since 2000, surpassing rivals such as Eaton Square and Cadogan Square. Just a decade ago, prices and pounds per square foot values in Grosvenor Square lagged behind rivals such as Eaton and Cadogan squares. Ten years on, the picture is very different and now values in Grosvenor Square have surpassed those in Eaton and Cadogan Square with a thrilling portfolio of UK£ 5,000 per sq/ft plus developments in housing stock underway.’
The Lodha Group, one of India’s large residential developers, recently purchased the Canadian High Commission in Gros venor Square for UK£ 306 million. They will now spend a further nine-figure sum converting the building into 20 luxury homes. On top of the houses and embassy buildings, rich Indian investors are also picking up a whole slew of hotels, like the Grosvenor House Hotel which was bought by Indian business house the Sahara Group in 2010 for UK£ 470 million. The Flemings Hotel is likewise now owned by the Veladail Hotels Group headed by Satinder Gulhati, the Washington Hotel on Curzon Street is understood to be owned by the Sanga family, and The MayFair Hotel is believed to have been acquired by Jasminder Singh of the Radisson Group. Ultra high net worth individuals (UHNIs) are typically spending between UK£ 1 million and UK£ 20 million on buying a home in Mayfair, with 70 % cent of the Indian investors purchasing an apartment or pent house. The remainder are going either for mansions, or townhouses and mews properties. Indian buyers are now the largest overseas group purchasing properties in Mayfair, making up a quarter of all sales. They have forged past the Asian and Continental European buyers (19 % of all purchasers), and the Russians and Middle Eastern buyers, who now comprise a mere 13 % of all buyers. So much so that early mornings in St James’ Park is today quite akin to the Lodi Gardens of Delhi or the Hanging Gardens in Mumbai, with a procession of well-heeled Indians perambulating around it, overtched from the Mall by the lavish residences of a family of Indian-origin industrialists, the Hindujas — bought from the queen and renovated at an estimated cost of UK£ 50 million. At the Buckingham Palace end of the park, a five-star hotel part-owned by Tata Sons, India’s biggest private-sector company, forms the headquarters of the Indian elite’s London season. It would not be amiss to see in its courtyard senior Hindu nationalist politicians rubbing shoulders with some of India’s national cricketers or a Congress Chief Minister, or a couple of Bollywood A-listers. Every member of this constellation — representing politics, cricket and Bollywood: the very firmament of Indian celebrity status— would also appear quite unsurprised by the encounters. We would gainsay that they Indeed come for more than just the weather. London property is seen as a secure investment, not to mention the capital’s world beating choice of services. British public schools are also becoming popular with rich Indians — and likely to become more so, Shahrukh Khan (the “King of Bollywood”) sending his son to board at Sevenoaks School in Kent is a case in point. A dim — some times very dim — sense of history makes such British luxuries all the more enticing. A very rich Indian with a London abode says it makes him mad to see so many fine Victorian monuments built with the stolen wealth of India (“but what about all the millions he’s stolen?” another Indian migrant harrumphs). Yet like the Britons who once flocked to Shimla, India’s elite come to London mainly for the self-validating glory of their own company. To be part of the London scene is a mark of distinction. It can also provide for excellent networking. Rich Indians from different realms and cities are often likelier to cross each other’s paths in London than in Delhi or Mumbai. For those seeking to curry favour with them, being in a foreign city (albeit one substantially owned by Indians) can also provide good opportunities to do so. Mostly, however, the Indians in London hang out with the same crowd as they do back home — and in much the same super charged atmosphere of “frivolity, gossip and intrigue” in Shimla that Rudyard Kipling once notably noted.
Yet there is a troubling flip-side to this historical comparison. The British in Shimla tended to shut themselves off from India even banning some Indians from the hillstation’s main promenade. London’s super rich Indians do not go to such lengths, yet their contact with British society is all but minimal. Surprisingly few socialise with British or other non-Indian tycoons or even, unless the India cricket team is in town, attend the traditional events of the London summer like the Lord’s Test match, Wimbledon, or the Henley regatta. Despite a push by the british government to strengthen business ties with India, their contact with the British economy also rarely extends beyond the services they use. Britain has no doubt seen a handful of big investments by Indian companies in the recent past , Tata Motors’ dazzlingly successful purchase of Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 was one such. Yet Britain’s trade with India remains pitiful — with India importing more from 20 other countries. The usual explanation is that Britain’s competitive advantage lies in high-end financial and legal services, which India hardly imports, in deference to its local providers. Nonetheless, this is a worryingly poor record for two countries with a common history, common language and a common legal system — which looks even worse when you consider how many Indian tycoons keep houses in London. Why do they not see more business opportunity in Britain ? Maybe like the erstwhile imperial rulers of India, their affection for their adopted country is less emotional than transactional, and maybe perhaps also easily erasable ?