India and the U.K. have many reasons to have close relations. They are two pillars of the Commonwealth, sharing democratic values and a world view on many political issues including terrorism. The Indian community that has settled in Britain has helped deepen ties. Today India is the third largest investor in the U.K., and the U.K. is the largest G20 investor in India. It stands to reason that for her first foreign visit outside Europe after taking over as Prime Minister, >Theresa May chose India. As long as British courts don’t stand in her way, she will work to engineer the U.K.’s exit from the European Union in early 2017, and her visit to India was seen as a way of exploring a trade path outside of the EU, with preliminary talk expected on reviving negotiations for a free trade agreement that were first started in 2007. For the past few months, British ministers, including key advisers to Ms. May, have emphasised that the Brexit movement would benefit India-U.K. ties. Given this backdrop, it remains a mystery why, in the event, Ms. May’s visit turned out to be devoid of any substantial measures that would put India-U.K ties on a new trajectory.
The >two MoUs signed in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ms. May, on improving the ease of doing business and on intellectual property rights, did little to add any shine to the lacklustre visit. Worse, Ms. May seemed more comfortable with her previous role as U.K. Home Secretary when she had announced strictures on immigration and student visas that have led to a 50 per cent drop in Indian students enrolling in British universities. Just three days before her visit to India, London announced new restrictions on overseas students, including two-tier visa rules based on the “quality of courses”, and a crackdown on work visas to control migration. Quite oblivious of the impact of these measures on her hosts, Ms. May chose to announce during her first day in Delhi that not only could she not consider India’s demands for relaxation, but that the U.K. could not do so unless India did more to assist in the return of “Indians with no right to remain in the U.K.” The irony is that London has refused to budge on facilitating the “return” of the likes of Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi. It was odd that the Modi government chose to rejoice that Ms. May offered visas on a short notice scheme only for the extremely wealthy Indian as part of a “Grand Club”, which even British newspapers have criticised as a racist, colonialist and elitist measure.