At an IJA function celebrating seven decades of Indian independence, Britain’s foreign secretary issued a heartening message for Delhi. Ashis Ray reports

As India marks 70 years of independence from Britain, Whitehall seems to consider South Block a closer tie than India’s adversaries, namely Pakistan and China. This was interpreted as the underlying message in a significant speech by British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson at a dinner to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA) of Europe.

‘Seventy years after Indian independence, it’s an astonishing community of values between our two countries,’ declared Johnson. ‘We are shoulder to shoulder with India in tackling the threat of extremist terrorism.’

In diplomatic circles these days, such reference is code for concern about Islamist violence. Indeed, the Indian establishment might read this as a veiled criticism of Pakistan. It can’t quite, though, be deciphered on those lines, since Pakistanis are not known to have been associated with recent outrages in Britain. Besides, relations between London and Islamabad – notwithstanding former prime minister, David Cameron’s public criticism of Pakistan in 2010 – are cordial; and this is likely to remain unaltered, regardless of any upward trajectory in ties with India.

(l to r) Girija Sinha, wife of the Indian high commissioner; H.E. Yash Sinha, Indian H.C.; Boris Johnson & his wife, Marina Wheeler
(l to r) Girija Sinha, wife of the Indian high commissioner; H.E. Yash Sinha, Indian H.C.; Boris Johnson & his wife, Marina Wheeler

About the nuclear rattling by North Korea, Johnson disclosed: ‘We will work with our friends in India, I hope, to persuade our friends in China. It is in the Chinese government’s hands to exercise that economic pressure on Kim Jong-un to achieve the diplomatic resolution that we need.’ In a climate of frosty non-cooperation between India and China on a number of issues, including border disputes, this was construed as moral support for Delhi – not that Britain, unlike in 1962, will overtly do or say anything to upset the Chinese, nor is it capable of containing their belligerence.

In fact, China’s facilitation of a Pakistan-North Korea nexus has long bothered India. Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons and North Korea’s missile know-how have, by virtue of their collaboration, resulted in the former advancing its delivery systems and the latter acquiring better bomb technology. Johnson’s desire to work with India to counteract the threat that has burgeoned from Pyongyang as a result of its partnership with Islamabad can only be unreservedly welcomed by India.

There is a tendency in India’s ministry of external affairs to undervalue Britain

Anglo-Indian relations have been governed by a degree of mistrust. In the Cold War atmosphere, India’s proximity to the Soviet Union and its opposition to Western interference in the internal affairs of third world countries have been looked upon with suspicion. Likewise, Britain’s softness towards Pakistan and its policy of hyphenating India with it, not to mention its hesitation in the realm of intelligence-sharing, have displeased Delhi.

More positive is the personal angle. Historically, it has not been uncommon for foreign correspondents assigned to India to fall in love with beautiful Indian women. One such instance was Charles Wheeler of the BBC, later knighted, being swept off his feet by an irresistible Dip Singh, niece of the delightfully unsparing writer Khushwant Singh. The union has evolved into Britain’s current foreign secretary, Johnson, being viewed as an in-law of India.

In 2012, the IJA posthumously conferred a lifetime achievement award on Wheeler. His two daughters, Marina, a barrister, and Shirin, a BBC correspondent in Brussels, received the honour on his behalf. Last month, the relationship was further consolidated with the former being accompanied by her husband, Boris Johnson, to the commemoration dinner.

Johnson’s colourful critiques of foreign leaders in his magazine and newspaper columns haunted his early days at the foreign office. But in the ruling Conservative party he remains a popular figure whom the City of London loves to describe as a ‘heavy hitter’. A robust political campaigner, he was twice elected London’s mayor – the biggest direct election in Europe for an individual after the French presidential poll. For years publicly enigmatic on Brexit, he finally took the plunge to tilt the scales in its favour. Having won the 2016 referendum, however, he came a cropper in a bid for the Conservative leadership, though he was rescued from the potential wilderness by the successful candidate, Theresa May, who unexpectedly handed him the plum post of foreign secretary.

Johnson arrived at the IJA function retaining his trademark ruffled blond hair. In contrast, Marina was immaculately attired in a gorgeous salwar-kameez – stitched from one of her mother’s saris, she confided to a correspondent. The buzz among the 150 attendees was: what will he say in his speech? In the event, during a three-hour tour-de-force at the dinner table, Johnson regaled neighbouring guests with his inherent, no-holds-barred humour. He also spoke with noticeable warmth about his Indian relatives and with insight about India, a country he has frequently visited.

The British foreign office is a laboratory of diplomatic communication and the wordsmith in Johnson has seemingly fallen in line with such speak. There was an unmistakable message for media pressurised by money and muscle power as he advocated ‘a free, independent and intrepid media’, roaring, ‘Tell truth to power, let your sunlight disinfect the darkest places in our countries and across the world’. It was just the thing a newsman believing in liberty wanted to hear.

Nor did Johnson spare his hero from his Eton and Oxford days about whom he has written a biography, Britain’s wartime prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. ‘When [Churchill] persistently and balefully prophesied disaster for Indian independence or swaraj, he was more spectacularly and utterly wrong than he had ever been before,’ Johnson admitted, thereby pressing the right button for Indian patriots.

He also stressed the importance of a post-Brexit free trade deal between Britain and India, lacing jest with seriousness. ‘It would be a fine thing if the 150 per cent tariff on Scotch whisky could be reduced, so that the vast number of Indian Scotch whisky drinkers in India, including members of my family, can enjoy the king of whiskies.’ He mischievously asked: ‘Isn’t that a humane thing?’

There is a tendency in India’s ministry of external affairs to undervalue Britain. Yet as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council alone, it is more than important. India, it appears, now has a friend in Johnson at the foreign office. An additional ally at Downing Street would perhaps realise Cameron’s elusive dream of a ‘special relationship’.

Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent. He is also president of the Indian Journalists’ Association in Europe

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