The long-awaited meeting between Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi is nearly here, , amidst a tragic Covid surge in India. The India-UK bonhomie offers an opportunity that will benefit tens of thousands of Indian students and investors, as well as indirectly improving the lives of millions of consumers in India.
Britain will gain access to a lucrative market that could yet grow into a serious alternative to China, and a powerful ally against the pernicious threat of terrorism.
There is a vast “living bridge” between India and the UK. Britons of Indian origin are very successful, with an in senior professional roles at the level of director or manager. Then of course there are the obvious high-profile figures in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet: l and , Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively.
The success of Indians in Britain may form a great deal of the goodwill which accompanies India’s rise to Great Power status in the eyes of the UK. While it is true that sections of the UK media, especially on the ideological Left is hostile to PM Modi and the ruling BJP, there can be no doubt that robust diaspora influence and the new image of India as an economic powerhouse are helping to challenge old stereotypes.
As ever, the most critical point for the Indian side in trade negotiations is ready access to the UK for Indian professionals and students, which may be a challenge in the face of a perceived hostile environment for immigration after Brexit. It remains to be seen how Johnson and Patel will approach this issue, although visa regimes for Indian students have been loosened.
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India and the UK are bonded by the English language, as well as shared liberal values. Poorly evidenced claims by certain think tanks that India has become less democratic under Modi (even though he won the greatest mandate in human electoral history twice) are belied by the eagerness of France, the UK, and of course the US to accelerate ties with India. Britain faces stiff competition to gain access to the Indian market.
The French in particular have tasted great success in selling state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets to India, as well as modern nuclear power plants. Britain, which has a will be hard-pressed to compete in offering India such strategic goods. There are, however, things which the UK can sell to India’s fast growing middle class.
The British media recently took note of a focus in 10 Downing Street on convincing Delhi to reduce tariffs on whisky and British cars. Boris Johnson intends to ask for a reduction in tariffs on imports of British whisky (levied at an eye-watering 150 per cent by India and cars to India by March 2022 – an important point as . While this would be ambitious given the glacial pace with which India moves in trade negotiations, there is a new-found urgency in signing a prelude to a full Free Trade Agreement, driven by the twin challenges of Brexit and the need for resilient supply chains post-Covid pandemic.
It is true that the two countries have not always seen eye-to-eye on some issues. There have been significant disagreements on how to deal with the spectre of terrorism emanating from Pakistan for example, with India previously perceiving the UK as dismissive of Indian concerns on the issue. However the Johnson government has signalled a change in strategic intent, having recently announced that Pakistan will be placed on a . This could be a precursor to putting Pakistan on a Financial Action Task Force blacklist that would severely restrict financial transactions.
With Afghanistan widely projected to become unstable again, it makes a lot of sense for India and the UK to share information on their counter-extremism efforts, especially as there will be a probable surge in violence in the region and beyond as the West leaves Afghanistan.
There are further security concerns which are causing India and the UK to draw closer together. In the wake of the devastating coronavirus pandemic and an assertive China, a closer British partnership with India in the security domain generally, such as , will send a very pertinent message globally that the UK is back as a global force for good in defending democratic values.
Britain and India are natural partners. The UK’s world class educational institutions have helped change the lives of thousands of Indian students, and Britons of Indian origin are found in the UK’s highest political layers. The touted aim of doubling India-UK trade to £50bn by 2030 is a worthwhile challenge, and one that is achievable because of the powerful diaspora-led ties.
The sky is the limit for India-UK cooperation, if done right. Carpe Diem Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi, in your cyber meet!
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.