The year that was 2021 for UK-India relations

The year that was 2021 for UK-India relations

With Boris Johnson being slated to finally visit India early next year, and negotiations for a new free trade deal to begin around the same time, 2022 promises to be one of the most exciting and transformational years in UK-India relations.

PM Johnson was supposed to visit India in January 2021, however this could not happen due to the continuing coronavirus crisis in the UK. A successful visit would have seen many business deals being signed, as well as renewed focus on bringing to life a UK-India free trade deal. One of the great rationales of Brexit was that it would give trade with big economies like India greater impetus or momentum. There may be some truth to this, as the trade volumes between Britain and India have increased sharply in recent years, nearly doubling between 2016 and 2019. The aim is to boost India-UK trade to £50bn in the near future.

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The British want Indian tariffs on UK exports of whisky and cars to be removed, an issue which I covered in a previous Deep Dive column. India in turn wants easier access for NRIs in high end professional jobs, to live and work in the UK. Greater ease of immigration for Indian students is a major Indian priority. The Johnson government is much friendlier to Indian students than under the previous May administration, as demonstrated by a sharp rise in Indian students being granted visas – a 93 per cent increase – since Johnson took office. The British government has removed cumbersome tests for the skilled worker visa, making it easier for skilled Indians to immigrate to the UK. It has also introduced a new Global Talent visa aimed at enticing specialists in sectors such as IT with the prospect of a five year UK stay, which will certainly benefit Indian professionals, so the ease of movement is heading in a positive direction.

The course of negotiations will be interesting to watch, with the UK looking to diversify trade away from Europe, and India also looking to vary its supply chains. In the aftermath of Covid and tensions with China, there is enough motivation for both countries to see a trade deal through. However bureaucracy in both sides will be a challenge. There is certainly hope that a deal will materialize in the medium term, with negotiations on to get an ‘early harvest deal’ by March 2022, followed by a full Free Trade Deal which will remove many tariffs and barriers.

2021 also saw the world take note of India’s vaccine diplomacy, as it sent locally manufactured vaccines to other nations that were afflicted with severe coronavirus crises. Many grateful countries around the world reciprocated by sending aid when India faced its own tragic second wave of the virus in March. Vaccines are also a pivotal point of British-Indian co-operation, with the British developed AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured in India under the local name ‘Covishield’. This was a good example of the two countries collaborating to advance human health globally. British technology and research together with Indian manufacturing strength is a proven winning combination.

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It was unfortunate that shortly afterwards vaccines also became a point of contention in September, as British coronavirus entry rules initially mandated that even vaccinated Indians had to self-isolate upon entry into the UK. This was despite many of them having being given the same AstraZeneca vaccine as older Britons. Understandably this move caused much controversy in India. The Indian government reciprocated to this by requesting vaccinated British travellers to isolate upon arrival in India. The UK then relented and removed the need for isolation for Indian travellers in October. It was a needless controversy that raked up historical memories of racism against Indians in the UK. Interestingly it was also something of an eye-opener because it showed how the power dynamics between India and the UK had shifted toward India, away from the UK. As soon as India imposed reciprocal measures the British yielded to India’s request.

The important field of security co-operation reached new heights this year, partly fuelled by the two democracies’ shared concerns over the rise of China. The Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its associated strike group carried out large scale exercises with India’s Navy and Air Force in October, with the two nations’ armies also exercising with each other at the same time. This was a watershed event in defence relations and likely to be intended as a message to Beijing. In the backdrop of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, this has significant implications for security and stability in both India and the UK. It makes ample sense for both countries to co-operate with each other against traditional threats such as terrorism, besides keeping a wary eye on China.

November 2021 saw a groundbreaking survey of British Indian attitudes and voter intentions published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which suggested that Labour was slowly losing its traditional Indian voters to the Conservatives. This indicates that the traditional certainties of British politics are no more; the growing perception that the British Left is anti-India could yet be costly to Labour in the next General Election. British Indian votes are up for grabs, and while the survey suggested that UK-India relations are not a high priority for voters at the moment, that may well change when the pandemic begins to recede into the distance.

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Britain and India have many differences, but they are also both powers with a shared interest in expanding trade and opportunities for their peoples. They also have many common interests in defence and security, and the growing political influence of the British Indian community in Britain has become notable. All of this points to a meaningful evolution in the relations between India and the UK in 2022. I am optimistic that they will they live up to the considerable hype.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to iGlobal News and Deep Dive readers!

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.

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