Last week marked the twin milestones of the third anniversary of Brexit and Rishi Sunak’s completion of 100 days in office as UK Prime Minister. In a revealing interview with Piers Morgan to mark his prime ministerial milestone, Sunak disclosed that the Hindu concept of dharma or duty was behind his decision to take on what was undoubtedly a “nightmare job”, given the political turmoil preceding his elevation. The coming year will tell whether he can indeed make his mark in history and complete his dharma.
Meanwhile, Brexit has been a mixed bag for Britain, to say the least. Over six years in the making since the Cameron government’s defeat in the referendum, and the resignation of the then PM David Cameron, the road to leaving the European Union has been bumpy. There were incessant attempts to stall the break with the EU in Parliament under PM Theresa May, legal attempts to challenge the outcome of the referendum and a general division between primarily older ‘Leave’ voters, opposed to immigration, and younger ‘Remain’ voters.
It took Boris Johnson’s landslide election win in 2019 to finally get Brexit over the line, as the UK left the EU on January 31, 2020. Then of course, the world was hit by the coronavirus crisis from China and Brexit temporarily was put on the backburner.
Rough economic waters ahead
What is clear, according to the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections, is that Britain is the only large economy expected to shrink this year while the rest of the world – even a Russia bogged down by Western sanctions – recovers robustly from the coronavirus challenge. How much of this is down to Brexit is debateable, but there appears to be growing regret at leaving the EU as the much-promised economic benefits have not materialised. This economic downturn and sense of disappointment with Brexit may impact significantly on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, one of the strongest supporters of Brexit.
Sunak completing 100 days in office is something to be celebrated for British Indians, and for all those who have been vigorously campaigning for Britain to be more diverse in all spheres of public life. It doesn’t get much more symbolic than the Prime Minister of the country being of Indian origin, with his wife Akshata Murthy, being Indian.
That said, the signs of economic gloom amidst a backdrop of strikes do not bode well for Sunak’s chances of being remembered as a successful PM. Current opinion polls suggest that, while Sunak is viewed as an improvement over many of his immediate predecessors such as May and Liz Truss, only one in 10 voters sees him still being Prime Minister after the next general election, according to a YouGov/Times Radio poll. Certainly, he has his work cut out for him if he is to make an impression in the history books and retain power in 2024.
Modi ‘documentary’ aftermath
The twin pressures of a lack of time, and the economic challenges posed by Brexit make it all the more important for the UK to reach out to India, and yet there are some obstacles to doing so.
Firstly, Sunak’s Indian origin mean that he will be under pressure from the British media and establishment not to be seen leaning toward India too much publicly, lest he be accused of bias while holding high office. Secondly, UK-India relations have been shaken by a recent BBC documentary on Indian PM Modi’s while he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. The BBC’s reliance on second hand testimony from people who either were not present during the riots (or were investigated for lying about them) is being criticised.
Questions are also being raised as to the relevance and timing of this documentary right now, especially as PM Modi was completely cleared of any responsibility or wrongdoing in relation to this incident by the Supreme Court of India. It has led to calls within India to downgrade diplomatic ties with the UK, including putting India-UK free trade deal on the backburner.
Furthermore, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has suggested changing the student visa rules such that foreign students, including Indians, who do not find a job within six months will need to leave the UK (or apply for a work visa). That would be yet another hurdle.
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Big competition for ties with Delhi
Time is not on Britain’s side if it wishes to sign a favourable trade deal with India. All global trends indicate that India will retain its position as the world’s fastest growing economy despite the potent headwinds from the post-coronavirus world.
Other major economic powers including the United States, France and Japan are all courting India to try to garner multibillion dollar trade deals that benefit them. For example, General Electric has applied to the US Congress to assemble jet engines in India – a critical strategic technology worth tens of billions of dollars, while President Biden has invited PM Modi to the US this year, underlining the scale of competition London faces. Britain’s slice of the Indian pie may yet shrink to a negligible amount, unless a major breakthrough is made in trade and strategic ties this year. It will be a challenge, given that general elections are due in both India and the UK next year, so there will be pressure to get a deal done as soon as possible.
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This is not to say that UK-India ties are on some kind of permanent downward trend. Far from it. As has been covered on Deep Dive before, trade and people to people ties remain robust. Sunak authorised the provision of over 3,000 work visas for young professionals from India within days of entering office in November 2022, under the UK-India Young Professionals Scheme, launching at the end of this month.
Then there is the seventh round of negotiations on the free trade agreement (FTA), due to begin soon, demonstrating that it does remain a key priority for both sides. There is also the small matter of India’s leadership of the 2023 G20 summit, which Sunak will almost certainly attend. Not only would that be symbolic for India gaining greater prominence, but it would also be a significant moment as Indians can celebrate the first visit of a British Indian PM. The possibility remains that Sunak will lead a visit to India later in the year to complete the FTA negotiations.
Whatever happens with FTA negotiations and UK-India bilateral ties, the diaspora is fast becoming a cornerstone of India’s grand strategy. The Indian PM addressed the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas event at Indore last month, describing overseas Indians as “brand ambassadors” for his Make in India’ programme, among other things.
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There can be no doubt that this will continue, as Delhi rises in global prominence, and the diaspora rises in prominence with it. The most famous example resides in Number 10, Downing Street.
Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.