As ‘B-Day’ draws closer, G. Parthasarathy offers a frank assessment of how India’s relationship with the UK might play out in a post-Brexit era
India-UK ties have improved significantly in recent years during the tenures of Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May. India’s relations with most countries, including Britain, have been based on a national consensus, transcending changes of government in New Delhi.Historically, however, successive governments in the UK have not shown the same bipartisan approach towards relations with India.
The Labour Party, headed by Clement Attlee, was in office in the UK when India attained its independence, although even before Independence, leaders of the Indian National Congress enjoyed close links with the Labour Party, finding it more sympathetic to their causes than the Conservatives.When Winston Churchill was Prime Minister during the Second World War, his insensitive comments about India and Indians had caused deep anguish in Indian minds, especially so when three million Indians perished in the Bengal Famine of 1943.
Post-independence, India’s largely cordial relationship with the UK was nevertheless marked by differences in attitudes to issues such as decolonisation and apartheid in South Africa. These differences, however, were largely balanced by close people-to-people ties, which were reinforced by shared membership of the Commonwealth.
Then things took a significant turn from the 1960s, when Mrs Indira Gandhi and her successors developed very close personal relations with Conservative Prime Ministers Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major on issues including the 1971 Bangladesh conflict and the expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda by President Idi Amin. This same camaraderie was missing from ties with Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
In subsequent years, the India-UK relationship flourished at the highest level with a large measure of bipartisan support. Indians did, however, find marked differences in the approach to the relationship between No. 10 Downing Street, on the one hand, and Whitehall on the other, during the tenures of Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Despite these ups and downs, ties between India and Britain have been remarkably resilient and have assumed new dimensions in the past two decades. One major factor driving this has been India’s efforts during this period to open its economy for trade and investment and accelerate rates of growth, which are now among the highest in world. This has resulted in India’s participation in a network of Free Trade Agreements in Goods and Services across South, Southeast and East Asia. Such regional economic integration has been supplemented by closer security ties with the US and Japan, primarily to balance growing Chinese power across New Delhi’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood.
The UK ranks 15th in the list of India’s top trading partners. But it is the growing business and investment relationship between India and Britain that has been really gratifying.If one excludes Singapore and Mauritius, through which large investments from third countries are transferred to India, the UK, which has a cumulative investment (April 2000-June 2018) of $26.09 billion, is the second largest investor in India, accounting for 7 per cent of all Foreign Direct Investment in India. Likewise, India is the third largest investor in the UK, with cumulative investments, amounting to around $60 billion. Investments by Indian companies have added an estimated 110,000 jobs to the UK.
Many in India regard formerPremier David Cameron as the prime architect of several of the positive trends one has seen recently in India-UK relations,whereas Prime Minister Theresa May – albeit when she was the Home Secretary –initially caused some concern with the new restrictions she put in place for students from India. However, the relationship improved significantly after she assumed office,especially following her recent visit to India.From the Indian side, the new momentum to the economic relationship was initially spurred by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, who retains very fond memories of his days as a student in the UK. Mr Narendra Modi, India’s first Prime Minister born after Independence, has given addedimpetus to bilateral relations, with a very successful bilateralUK visit in 2015. More importantly, Mr Modi discardedrecent practice by personally attending the Commonwealth Summit in London, where he was very warmly received.
Prime Minister Maynoted, in recent discussions with Mr Modi, that India is a key strategic partner. Significantly, the UK seems to have moved closer to the US position on the strategic challenges posed in the Indo-Pacific region by an ever more assertive China, which appears ready to enforce territorial claims on its land and maritime boundaries with coercive military actions. Earlier, there was a growing feeling in Delhi that, given its extensive economic ties with Beijing, the UK was hesitant to deal candidly with China’s territorial claims and strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, extending across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. These are challenges now being comprehensively addressed by a growing trilateral strategic partnership between India, Japan and the US. Happily, there was a measure of mutual understanding between India and the UK in dealing with Chinese backing for an authoritarian regime in the Maldives, whose ties with China were causing concern over security of the sealanes in a region through which around 80 per cent of seaborne global energy resources are shipped.
With India engrossed in preparing for national elections in April 2019, no new initiatives can be expected in India-UK relations, at least in the forthcoming year, though the growth in bilateral economic cooperation has developed a momentum of its own. There is also an understanding in India about the complexities of the Brexit process, arising substantially from the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’, relating to the border with the Republic of Ireland, which could disrupt the peace settlement.
However, any ultimate decision on Brexit by the people of Britain would be welcomed in India,whose relationship with the UK transcends domestic political considerations. India’s Finance Minster Arun Jaitley indicated, following a meeting with his counterpart Philip Hammond, that India is ready to commence a dialogue on a Free Trade Agreement with the UK, talks on which can commence post-Brexit. India’s efforts to concludesuch an agreement with the EU remain stalled, despite prolonged negotiations.