As the befallen Babri mosque’s rubble was getting hoovered in Ayodhya, British premier John Major became the first foreign dignitary to visit India post demolition. To the surprise and pleasure of his hosts in New Delhi, he praised India’s commitment to a “secular constitution and tolerance and protection of minorities” in front of global media. The canny leader confirmed to the world that Kashmir was a bilateral issue for India-Pakistan to resolve.
This was music to prime minister Rao’s ears then, and it would be now to Mr. Modi’s. By winning contracts and paving the way for British firms, Major revealed a crafty formula to deal with New Delhi—stay away from the minefield of domestic and regional politics if you mean business.
His current conservative successor, Boris Johnson, who undid Major’s accession to the European Union, seems to have learned the ropes. While the UK Parliament assailed Indian farm laws, spearheaded by opposition MPs, Mr. Johnson’s deputy minister for Asia, Nigel Adams exonerated the Modi government by defending its right to action if agitators “cross the line into illegality.”
The Johnson administration, earlier ensnared in the dumpster fire of
Brexit, now seems to be prepared for Global Britain’s second coming on the world stage with the announcement of its Integrated Defence and Foreign Policy Review.
With an apparent tilt towards Asia in its renewed international orientation, the UK premier can hardly start by upsetting New Delhi, its major partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
Imbued with such mercantilist pragmatism, Mr. Johnson needed to hedge UK’s bets that were so far sneezed at. Despite historic and strong ties between both nations, kept alive by the flow of capital, services, and students, the UK’s charm dwindled over time. In trade with India, the UK slipped to the 14 th position in 2019-2020 from the prized third position it enjoyed two decades ago. It also lost its sheen as one of the top destinations for Indian students to countries like Australia and Canada despite boasting top-notch academic and research institutions. No major British munitions were acquired in the last two decades barring 123 Hawk jets and locally coproduced Howitzer guns, a much modest procurement compared to Russian, Israeli, American, and French arms. There are promising inquiries for air-to-air missile and combat aircraft but remain delayed due to financial or technical issues. Unlike the past, New Delhi no more looks at London for critical acquisitions.
For India, Britain is not the top source of foreign direct investment either.
The ‘Roadmap for 2030’ adopted by both premiers in their virtual meet is one giant leap for both states—UK recovering its lost glory in Asia and India negotiating its rise with London. The Roadmap is the most consequential and ambitious agenda agreed upon by both countries so far. Trade, strategy, intelligence-sharing, climate change, mobility, research, infrastructure, nuclear, space… one can name it.
Making this agenda a reality would very much depend on political grit, overcoming bureaucratic inertia, and continual engagement at all levels. Bilateral progress has remained elusive because of a lack of either one or a combination of it.
For instance, trade expansion met its cul-de-sac with Whitehall’s bureaucratic minutiae, while No. 10 was still bedevilled by Brexit.
Four areas—bilateral trade, defence production, strategic affairs, and human mobility—would consume the most energy and test mutual resolve to reify this blueprint. Both countries recently extricated themselves from adjoining free-trade zones—India from China-led RCEP and the UK from the European single market. Doubling the trade by 2030 remains ambitious yet achievable if gradual erosion of barriers is seen through.
With India’s move to blackball Chinese capital post-Galawan, India’s future unicorns can surely prosper from British capital. Enhanced bilateral movement of capital opens possibilities in fintech and financial services too if adequate regulatory framework is put in place. With Brexit, the UK has also opened its doors to the world, including India’s skilled migrant, something New Delhi has always pushed for. The Migration and Mobility Agreement set to be achieved by April 2022 would be Britain’s Hart-Celler moment.
In defence production, with New Delhi preferring government-to-government procurement and incentivising coproduction with tech transfers, London needs to adjust to newer realities and catch up with countries like France. If both sides can iron out differences, British Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautics can design and coproduce platforms, which New Delhi can export and finance to its own constituency in the global south. Both countries remain battered by China. India’s restless frontiers harried by Chinese troops and Britain’s squabbles with Beijing over Hong Kong and Huawei adds a natural point of convergence.
The manifestation of London’s desire for strategic space in the Indo-Pacific Region animated by the idea of Global Britain requires strategic partnering with India. Trilateral exercises, logistics agreement, and information sharing are a quantum leap from misgivings of yesteryears. With the planned foray of HMS Elizabeth in the South China Sea, the UK is all set to induct itself as a reliable player into the brewing alliance of democracies in the Indo- Pacific.
To its credit, relations have matured enough not to allow tiffs to snowball into estrangement. London overlooked New Delhi’s activism along with Mauritius at the UN against the UK’s possession of Diego Garcia island. Nor did it resent India’s wresting away a judgeship at the Internal Court of Justice, the first time that a P5 country was not on the bench. New Delhi, on its part, regularly disregards unpalatable statements by British MPs, who are swayed by constituency pressures, on sensitive Kashmir and Khalistan issues. In a sense, the duo inherits a robust legacy.
In Boris Johnson, Mr. Modi is not encumbered by ideological disjuncture. A socialist Jeremy Corbyn might have remained bereft of his patented chummy hugs and affable bromance but not his conservative counterpart. Populist appeal and political pedigree connect them. Unburdened by ideological hesitations and driven by pragmatism, it is vital that both premiers impregnate jointly penned Roadmap with the adequate political will to make it a reality.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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