UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Minister, Dominic Raab, recently came on an official visit to India. This was the first bilateral visit of a Foreign Minister to India since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson accepting PM Narendra Modi’s invitation to be the chief guest at the forthcoming 2021 Republic Day celebrations coincided with Raab’s visit. The visit set in motion the preparation by both sides for substantive outcomes during the January visit. PM Johnson’s trip to India would be his first major visit abroad; India is likely to be the first country he would visit after the UK exits the European Union. PM Modi also accepted the invitation of PM Johnson to attend the G7 summit in the UK next year. Australia and South Korea are the other countries that will attend it. Later in the year, India will attend the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow.
With this intensity and frequency of engagement, India-UK relations seem set for take-off. The time is particularly opportune for enhanced engagement between the two countries, with the UK headed for ‘Brexit’ in just a few days. India is seen as a significant partner in the post-Brexit vision of Global Britain that the UK has envisaged.
During the recent visit of Dominic Raab, the two sides spoke positively about developing a 10-year roadmap for bilateral relations aimed at giving practical shape to the ties in a new ambitious mode. An enhanced trade partnership with a potential deal, and a new tariff structure are being discussed. Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal has made an early harvest proposition within the framework of a larger free trade agreement with the UK.
But the buildup to India-UK relations should be seen in the backdrop of developments over the last 18 months or so.
A long embrace
Two violent demonstrations outside the Indian High Commission in London last year, coupled with the adoption of an ‘anti-India’ resolution at the annual conference of the Labour Party, offended the Indian diaspora in the UK. The Conservatives and sections of the Indian community had been courting each other for some time. PM Johnson has long been known for his interest in India. The developments last year coalesced into a significant support from the Indian diaspora. to the Conservative Party. It is also interesting that the current UK Cabinet has given pride of place to four ministers of Indian origin.
The warmth of the India-UK embrace is stoked by the smouldering emergence of China. India has multiple reasons to worry about China, its presence in eastern Ladakh being just one of them. The Western world has increasingly come face to face with a China whose rise could lead to the eclipse of the existing order. The devastation caused by the coronavirus is the current tipping point. The poolside parties in Wuhan, where the virus originated, are in stark contrast to the strict lockdowns that are now the lot of parts of the UK and Europe.
Indo-Pacific is increasingly a region of interest to Europe. With Germany coming out with its Indo-Pacific strategy recently, and France having done so earlier, the UK too is looking to clarify its own vision towards this region. It reaffirmed that its HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group will visit the Indo-Pacific region next year. An expansion of the existing Quadrilateral on the Indo-Pacific, including the US, Japan, and Australia along with India, is looking more desirable than ever.
India’s collaboration with the UK in the area of science and technology is most manifestly demonstrated through the Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. The ‘design in UK, make in India, and export to the world’ model is best illustrated by this vaccine. The human, technical and financial complementarities between the two countries need to be encouraged for mutual benefit. Protecting cyberspace is another area of interest to India, given the threat posed by our enemies and the expertise developed by the UK. Both countries can work together in this and other sensitive research.
Hiccups on the road
As the two countries work hard to realise the potential of the relationship, there are some challenges that need addressing too.
The raising of Khalistani flags at the recent demonstrations outside India House in London and our Consulate in Birmingham was a reminder of the anti-India elements that continue to enjoy the freedom and protection available under the democratic dispensation of the UK. These elements seem to operate with impunity. They are smart and experienced enough to flirt with the boundaries of law so that even when arrested, they are let off lightly. Linkages between Khalistani elements and Pakistan, as brought out by a report titled ‘Khalistan: a Project of Pakistan’ by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, have been a source of concern to India. Inputs about the activities of the Pakistani establishment in the UK and their alleged manipulative linkages with UK-based extremists from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have long been a source of distrust between India and the UK.
The presence of financial and other offenders from India is another irritant. The UK government has shown a greater understanding of India’s concerns on these issues in the recent past. It has been more willing to engage with India on sensitive issues, though meaningful exchange of intelligence or effective action against extremist elements in the UK would help build confidence about it in India. Similarly, the UK has pursued the cases against Vijay Mallya, while Nirav Modi has been in detention since April last year. Earlier, in February 2020, the first success since the signing of the extradition treaty with the UK in 1992 was registered with the extradition of Sanjeev Chawla to India. Vijay Mallya’s appeals against his extradition were turned down by the High Court and Supreme Court of UK in April and May 2020 respectively. His extradition to India has been held up by some ongoing confidential legal proceedings, speculated to be related to his asylum request. An early decision on the confidential legal matter that could clear the way for his extradition would be seen as a positive signal here.
A better future
India became the second-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) projects into the UK according to the UK Department for International Trade inward investment results, 2019 to 2020. There are around 850 Indian companies in the UK with combined revenue of over £41 billion. The Indian diaspora has also contributed to creation of businesses and jobs. These trends would receive a fillip if the UK is able to ease up the movement of people from India, especially students, professionals and business persons. It has been examining the drafts of agreements on migration and mobility and social security. Finalisation of these would generate confidence amongst Indian businesses and professionals.
Post-Covid economic recovery in both India and the UK would benefit from greater economic engagement between the two countries. There is enormous potential for India-UK relations to develop and prosper. Dominic Raab’s visit will prepare for the realisation of this potential. With the UK going into a stricter lockdown and flights suspended between the two countries due to the new coronavirus variant found there, the two sides would need some out-of-box methods to achieve these objectives.
Ruchi Ghanashyam is a retired IFS officer who recently served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK. Views are personal.