A High Court ruling prevented Theresa May scoring any breakthrough on trade in India, but counter-terrorism and defence co-operation is thriving, reports Ashis Ray

Britain and India have moved closer to each other in the realm of security co-operation following Prime Minister Theresa May’s two-day trip to India – her first bilateral visit outside Europe since taking office in July.

Beyond the public handshake at Hyderabad House – a grand venue for hospitality and talks with foreign dignitaries in the heart of Delhi – the national security advisers of the two countries conferred quietly on security issues. The week after May was in the Indian capital, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in India, R N Ravi, hastened to London to finalise matters.

Countering terrorism has been a slightly ticklish issue between the two countries. Other than David Cameron once accusing elements of the Pakistani state of promoting the ‘export of terror’ in 2010, no British prime minister has ever expressed in public what they’ve privately admitted to their Indian counterparts about Pakistan’s alleged double game. Cameron’s remarks predictably brought a furious reaction from Islamabad, and he never echoed them again in public.

Indeed, May adhered to the script in the joint statement issued in Delhi after her dialogue with her opposite number, Narendra Modi, which said: ‘Prime Minister May strongly condemned the September terrorist attack on the Indian Army Brigade headquarters in Uri [in Indian-controlled Kashmir], and offered condolences to the victims and their families.’ As much as India would have liked her to, she did not blame Pakistan for the incident.

But away from the spotlight and consistent with subsequent wording in the joint statement – ‘India and Britain have both suffered the human cost of terrorism’ – diplomats and security officials agreed extremist outfits in Pakistan posed a common threat. They concurred such organisations not only carry out attacks in India, but indoctrinate British Pakistanis, thereby endangering security in Britain. This generated – as a diplomat put it – an ‘empathy’ between the sufferers of such hostility.

Since the July 2005 bombings in London’s public transport system, perpetrated by people mostly of Pakistani origin, British governments have been anxious to avoid a repetition. Whitehall’s policy has, therefore, been to keep lines open to Pakistan. Military relations between the two countries are quite intimate; Britain is also one of Pakistan’s biggest donors.

In the past, Britain was unwilling to share intelligence about Pakistan with India. This began to alter after Cameron’s 2010 meeting with the then Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and was taken a step forward during Modi’s visit to London in 2015.

The May-Modi joint statement went on: ‘The two leaders welcomed the ongoing bilateral counter-terrorism co-operation, and called for greater sharing of information between the two sides.’ It is the last part of the sentence that is significant. The meeting of the NSAs and Ravi’s almost immediate follow-up indicates a translation of words into action, including more intense efforts to combat terrorists’ use of the internet to recruit and radicalise.

To India’s satisfaction, the joint statement added: ‘The two leaders reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot attack to justice.’

On defence, further orders for BAE Systems’ Hawk trainers – now being manufactured in India – cannot be ruled out. Upgrading such aircraft to fighter category is also possible, though India has already received proposals in this respect from General Dynamics for F-16s and Saab for JAS 39 Gripens, among others, to manufacture indigenously. BAE could hope to produce its M777 tank locally, under the ‘make in India’ scheme.

May’s visit was meant to reassure sceptics in Britain and elsewhere that India, one of the world’s biggest markets, constituted a ready replacement for any loss of exports and investments resulting from Brexit. On this count, the joint statement recorded: ‘They (the two prime ministers) agreed they will make it a priority for both countries, when the UK leaves the European Union, to build the closest possible commercial and economic relationship.’ To this end, a Joint Working Group on trade of goods and services was formed, which will meet four times a year to aggressively pursue and review progress.

But where the two sides failed to agree was on immigration. While a fast track regime was created for Indian business travellers to Britain, there was no loosening of rules for intra-company transfers, students or tourists. May also did not budge on removing students from the net migration figures, and in fact she urged Modi to speed up repatriation of Indians deemed to be illegal immigrants in the UK.

May landed in India within days of a defeat in the High Court in London, which decreed the British parliament must vote on whether the UK can start the process of leaving the EU. This meant May’s government cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin negotiations to exit without a reference to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Its appeal against the verdict will be heard by the Supreme Court in December, but it somewhat weakened her ability to engage in a meaningful exploration of free trade with India.

Delhi’s objective was to assess a person who had previously been considered quite intransigent as Home Secretary, and she appeared to leave Indian officials convinced that she genuinely desires to continue Cameron’s pursuit of a ‘special relationship’.

Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent. He has covered Pakistan extensively for ITN and CNN

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