Beyond the ‘India Connect’

Boris johnson’s UK

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a chicken during his visit to rally support for his farming plans post-Brexit, in south Wales on July 30, 2019. AFP

Vanity thy name is Boris Johnson! A man who even as a child wanted to be ‘world king’ and had been dreaming of the prime minister’s office for years finally entered 10, Downing Street last week, adding another turn to the seemingly never-ending saga of Brexit. The process of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union has already taken a significant toll, with two prime ministers gone and the British domestic polity in disarray. Yet, there is no easy resolution in sight. Only the cast has changed, with Johnson in charge while the theatre of the absurd will continue much like before.

Boris Johnson was elected the new Conservative leader in a ballot of party members wherein he defeated his nearest rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, relatively easily. And then, in his first address to the House of Commons, Johnson promised a “new approach” to Brexit and a “golden age” for the UK, arguing that the route to a new Brexit deal would be to persuade the EU to “abolish” the Irish border backstop plan in the current agreement.

Though he underlined that EU citizens living in the UK would have their rights protected, there no clarity on how this can be reconciled with his broader position on Brexit. In response to these claims, the EU reiterated its longstanding position that the current withdrawal deal is the only agreement possible with the UK and that while it was open to examining ideas put forward by the UK, they need to be compatible with the existing withdrawal deal.

As Johnson takes on his new role as the British prime minister, he will face many of the same challenges that his predecessor Theresa May faced. He will have no honeymoon period to talk of. His will be a government with no real majority in Westminster, and the coalitions around Brexit have not really changed.

Intra-party divisions as well as political fault-lines across the country on Brexit remain much the same. In such a context, Johnson’s insistence that the UK can and should leave the EU by October 31, with or without a deal, can have serious implications for both British domestic and foreign policies.

The Indian media has focused a lot on Johnson’s so-called ‘India connect’ — the fact that his former wife was part-Indian or that his brother was in India as a journalist or even the fact that he has appointed three British-Indians — Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak — as senior members of his cabinet. But these are superficialities best ignored. These factors matter little when it comes to the rough and tumble of diplomacy. India’s ties with the UK are important and they have been becoming more pragmatic in the last few years.

David Cameron’s prime ministership was a real departure for British foreign policy towards the subcontinent when he publicly de-hyphenated India and Pakistan. He courted India as a booming economic power while Pakistan emerged as a problem state.

His successor Theresa May continued this trend though she was hobbled by the Brexit conundrum. She was keen on concluding trade deals with India, China and the US post-Brexit and had visited India in November 2016 with a large trade delegation to accelerate the process. This was her first foreign visit outside the EU, underscoring the importance India has come to occupy in the British foreign policy landscape. But nothing much came of her visit, primarily because of British domestic challenges. Johnson, too, will have limited space to manoeuvre.

Soon after Modi’s election victory earlier this year in May, Johnson had tweeted that he looked forward to “an even closer partnership” between the two nations. As foreign secretary, he laid emphasis on the conclusion of a free trade pact with India, though he had acknowledged that it would have to wait for the UK to formally come out of the EU. With the US, talks seem to have already begun with US President Donald Trump suggesting that talks about a “very substantial” trade deal with the UK are under way and that such a pact could lead to a “three to four, five times” increase in current trade.

‘Wait and watch’ mode

For India, uncertainty in the UK continues to be a huge deterrent. Unless Britain resolves its relationship with the EU, New Delhi is on a ‘wait and watch’ mode. This, despite the fact that trade between Britain and India 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. New Delhi has been insisting on easier immigration norms for Indians but with the whole logic of Brexit relying on a tough stance against immigrants, London’s ability to manoeuvre is limited.

If Johnson can find some bandwidth to deal with issues beyond Brexit, he would recognise that a strong Indo-UK bilateral partnership is the need of our times. From education, health, culture, infrastructure, science and high technology to areas such as policing and intelligence, Britain is still a global leader. Britain’s sharing of its expertise can be key to building capacities in India. 

While much has changed, the UK has not yet succeeded in articulating a broader strategic vision for its ties with India and this is related to its failure to view Asia beyond economics and trade. If Johnson can do this, something that he seems cognizant of, he would find a very willing partner in the Modi government.

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

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