How the Living Bridge helps keep UK-India relations on track
Much has happened in the past year despite a major pandemic, which caused most of the world to go into lockdown and inactivity for months at a time. A significant change is that India has emerged as one of the main centres for global vaccine production, underlining its credentials as a power to be reckoned in science and technology.
However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for UK-India relations, despite the British government’s stated aim of establishing a ‘special relationship’ with India. Vaccines and travel have been at the heart of disagreements for the past year.
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Travel, especially visas for Indian students and professionals has been a significant issue in bilateral relations in the past. This time there was a twist; Britain wanted Indians entering the UK to quarantine for 10 days at considerable cost, despite being vaccinated with the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine (named ‘Covishield’ in India). The very same vaccine which most British people over 30 had been injected with in the UK! Of course, this raised considerable questions over British attitudes to Indians, belying the supposed desire for friendship and partnership with a rising Delhi. There has been a perception in the past that a section of the British bureaucracy is hostile to Indian interests, a perception that has gained traction over the past few months.
How could a vaccine that has been injected into British people mysteriously become ineffective when injected into the bodies of Indians, some asked? It appeared that the UK had agreed to allow Indians in without quarantine, under diplomatic pressure, only for London to change its mind and re-impose quarantine, arguing that the Indian digital vaccine certification app- CoWIN was unreliable and could easily be faked. This, despite the Indian vaccine app being centralised and digitalised, and decades ahead of the paper-based vaccination status cards initially used by the UK (and which are very easy to fake!)
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A colonial British hangover?
The British government finally relented to allowing Indians in without expensive quarantine, but only after India imposed reciprocal measures on incoming British travellers. This was a truly needless controversy, especially with UK-Indian trade talks coming up shortly.
Perhaps it did not have any single root cause. The Indian media has argued that this was the residual effect of racism in the British system. Despite significant progress in the UK, some argue there may well be an undercurrent of racism in parts of the British bureaucracy. However, there is often more to such complex issues than just simple racism. Bureaucracies tend to be very methodical and slow to accept change, and it is likely that a section of the British powers that be have simply failed to understand the scale of technological change in India, especially in the digital sector which dwarfs British capabilities now.
Vaccine certifications are in any case a bureaucrat’s dream, with many stages of checking and oversight from testing to quarantine. This unfortunate policy may have simply been a case of systemic oversight, however it does not leave a great impression of how the British system views Indian people.
Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations
Trade talks between India and the UK are round the corner. There is a stated aim of securing an Early Harvest Agreement by next year, a prelude to a full FTA at some point this decade. Trade talks will be energised by the new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who has done a great job of negotiating trade deals with many powers after Brexit. It is to be hoped that India and the UK leave behind the unfortunate disagreement over vaccines.
In the aftermath of Brexit, which is playing out in the form of petrol shortages and possible food shortages at Christmas, it makes sense for the UK to grow as economically close to India as possible. UK-India trade is worth £ 24bn, with Delhi the second largest investor in the UK. While obstacles to an FTA will always exist, such as a perennial questions over visas for skilled Indian workers, India is emerging as a manufacturing powerhouse, slowly replacing China in the global supply chain and it exported nearly $150bn in IT exports last year. Boosting UK-India trade will strongly show that Britain has options outside of the EU, while helping Indian exporters across multiple sectors.
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Is the Labour Party missing the point?
The initiative to improve the relationship with India was initiated by the Conservatives, while Labour have been noticeably more lukewarm towards Delhi. Recently, there was a parliamentary debate held on Kashmir, led by UK Parliamentarians of Pakistani origin.
Labour figures have repeatedly raised the issue of the ongoing farmers’ protests, despite India’s insistence that these are both internal matters of India. All of this is contributing to an impression that Labour does not care so much about UK-India ties, an impression which is solidifying as the latest opinion surveys for iGlobal show.
As it is struggling to overhaul the Tories the polls, it might be an idea for the Labour leadership to start listening to disengaged Indian voters, as well as traditional Labour voters drifting away from the Party.
Rise of the Living Bridge!
As Diwali celebrations approach, there is much to contemplate as well as to celebrate. The British system is getting used to India’s rise, after 300 years of colonial domination. As hiccups such as the vaccine certificate controversy are left behind, there is real hope ahead of a new dawn in trade ties and economic growth, which can hopefully help to spur a bipartisan consensus among Tory and Labour Parliamentarians that robust ties with India are a good thing.
As ever, it is amazing to see the Living Bridge of British Indians and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) going from strength to strength, with British Indian business contributing £36.84 billion to the UK economy as of 2020. They are the reason why ties are being elevated, and that is to be celebrated.
This Diwali is a promising one for the “Living Bridge” of British Indians, named so because they are the bridge between the UK and Indian culture. A Happy Diwali to iGlobal readers, and may it herald the rise of a new dawn for Indian origin people in the UK!