India and the UK in Johnson era

Last Updated 27 December 2019, 19:37 IST

Boris Johnson’s emphatic victory in the UK general elections has again underlined how the issue of Brexit has delineated the political configurations in the British body politic. Given the centrality of Brexit, ultimately the choice for the British electorate was between Johnson, who promised to deliver Brexit by January 31, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who wanted to negotiate a new Brexit deal and then grant a new EU referendum. For a nation tired of the political wrangling in Westminster, which most do not even comprehend, this was an opportunity to break the logjam and give a new direction to the British polity.

The Conservatives, led by Johnson, secured a whopping 80-seat majority in Parliament, the largest enjoyed by a Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, while Labour was demolished in areas it had been holding for decades. This was the fourth successive defeat for Labour and the end of Corbyn’s disastrous leadership. The Liberal Democrats have been the worst sufferers, with their leader Jo Swinson herself losing her seat. The Scottish Nationalists, on the other hand, have won big in Scotland with an unprecedented sweep.

While Johnson claimed after winning that “it does look as though this One Nation Conservative government has been given a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done,” the divisions in the UK still remain significant. In particular, the Scottish nationalists are insistent on a second referendum for independence, an issue that is likely to take centre stage as the Brexit debate draws to a close.

For now, however, Johnson’s priority is to deliver on Brexit and already, the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which would ban the government from extending the transition period past 2020, has been approved by the House of Commons. For Johnson, this is important to end “delay and rancour” and provide “certainty.”

It is certainly important for Britain to set its own house in order quickly so that it can engage with its global interlocutors more credibly. For India, in particular, Johnson’s victory is important as there were growing concerns about the Labour Party’s attitudes on a range of issues pertaining to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Johnson on his re-election, resolving to continue working closely on issues such as trade, security and defence, and climate change.

Both Johnson and his party have been strong in their commitment for a robust India-UK relationship. Johnson, in fact, had committed to visiting India as one of his first visits upon re-election. During his election campaign, Johnson visited the Swaminarayan Temple in north west London where he was categorical in his support for India’s fight against terrorism, and to Modi in his drive to build ‘New India.’ He has also suggested changes in the British immigration system which might help in resolving a persistent problem in India-UK ties.

In this, he carries forward the legacy of his predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, who nurtured ties with India and unshackled British foreign policy towards the subcontinent from the clutches of domestic politics. But Johnson has an imperative to get the Brexit done and to sign post-Brexit trade pacts with major economic powers, including India.

Britain is an important partner for India as trade between the two nations has been growing at 17% per annum, with the total trade volume touching $25 billion. The UK is the fourth largest investor into India while India is the third-largest investor into the UK. There is a 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora in Britain with a strong Indian presence in the manufacturing sector.

So, both sides have an interest in engaging more substantively with each other. As Brexit has consumed British polity over the last three years, the world has been in a perpetual state of turbulence. Indian foreign policy has been reacting to the changes in the global order with a rare proactive approach. India’s ties with major global powers have seen a major shift. In Europe, France has emerged as a serious partner with convergences across different dimensions: political, diplomatic and strategic. In the maritime space, the logistics agreement with France stands out as an important marker of the ambitions that the two nations share in recasting their ties in the contemporary context.

Britain under Johnson has its task cut out. Jeremy Corbyn’s antics have done great damage to the sentiments in New Delhi. The Labour Party’s resolution at its Brighton conference in September condemning “the recent actions of the Government of India to revoke Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution and the special status” granted to Kashmir and supporting “international intervention in Kashmir and a call for UN led-referendum” had drawn strong reactions in India. The Indian diaspora in the UK had traditionally favoured Labour, but it has been turned off by Corbyn’s anti-India agenda.

So, as Johnson assumes charge and takes Brexit to its logical conclusion, there is an expectation that India-UK ties might get the momentum they have been seeking for some time now.

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

(Published 27 December 2019, 18:48 IST)

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