Britain’s Indian litmus test

May’s Nov. visit will test her govt.’s claim that forging strong non-EU alliances and adopting a hardline stance on immigration are not incompatible.

October 20, 2016 01:22 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

FULL TEXT:  “The impression Britain is giving to countries such as India is, we want your business but we don’t want your people.” Picture shows Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference 2016, in Birmingham, in early October.

FULL TEXT: “The impression Britain is giving to countries such as India is, we want your business but we don’t want your people.” Picture shows Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference 2016, in Birmingham, in early October.

British Prime Ministers have made a habit of making big statement visits to India. Two months after becoming Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron led a high-profile delegation to New Delhi, while successor Theresa May’s visit during the India-U.K. Tech Summit next month will be her first to a non-European Union (EU) country since she took over in July. As with Mr. Cameron’s visits and that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to London last November, Ms. May’s visit is likely to be accorded much significance and touted as the one that could propel the two countries’ historic relationship to a new league, politically and economically (both trade and investment have been lacklustre in recent years).

Not just a bilateral signal

The deal will also have great significance for the U.K. well beyond the bilateral relationship. It will be its first major test of whether it can marry its hopes of cementing stronger partnerships with non-EU countries while at the same time introducing the tougher immigration regime the government believes was mandated by the Brexit referendum. While critics have argued that the two approaches are fundamentally inconsistent, the Conservative government has firmly clung on to both policies. “We have the chance to forge a new global role for the U.K.,” Ms. May proclaimed earlier this week as her visit to India was announced and she pledged to look for “economic and diplomatic opportunities” in the wider world, just days after telling the Conservative Party conference that Britain did “not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year.”

When it comes to the relationship with India. Ms. May has promised a fresh approach that will focus on forging links between small and medium-sized enterprises (around 120 U.K. SMEs are expected to join Ms. May on her trip) in India. It’s perhaps a nod to the quiet success of the German approach, which has been on capturing a large number of solid opportunities rather than multi-million headline-grabbing deals.

Among issues likely to be at the forefront of bilateral discussion is a potential India-U.K. Free Trade Agreement, something that is being considered at the behest of the U.K. but which Indian officials have spoken favourably of too. Though official negotiations on such a deal would not be possible while Britain remains an EU member (EU rules forbid this), detailed informal negotiations could mean that a deal could be concluded rapidly after a British exit.

From the Indian perspective there is much on offer, theoretically at least, with a Britain unhindered by EU prescripts (such as the one that banned mangoes from India for over a year), or by the concerns of pockets of Europe (at the moment the EU-Canada FTA is being held up by a parliamentary vote in the Belgian province of Wallonia). It would offer Britain a chance to open up in all sorts of areas ranging from ayurvedic goods to data protection, says Manoj Ladwa, a London-based political strategist and former adviser to Mr. Modi’s electoral campaign. “But Britain would have to show that they were indeed unshackled.”

That in itself could provide a major challenge: sceptics have pointed out that the movement of temporary workers (Mode 4) has been a stumbling block in the India-EU FTA, and one that Britain is hardly likely to bend over in the current environment. To the contrary, Britain’s Conservative government has signalled a decisively tougher stance on immigration, and not just from the EU, pledging a £140-million “Migration Control Fund” and a further clampdown on student visas (linking the type of visa to the quality of the university). Changes to rules governing intra-company transfers, widely used by India’s IT sector and announced in March, are set to come in this year. Business organisations such as FICCI have warned that a wrong message was being sent to Indian firms already apprehensive about the impact of Brexit on their investments.

“The impression Britain is giving to countries such as India is, we want your business but we don’t want your people,” says Mr. Ladwa.

“There is an element of seeing what they want to see,” notes Gareth Price, who is with the think tank Chatham House, of the British approach. “If Brexit is the U.K.’s future, seeking these global trade deals, and seeking to project the idea that we are a global, outward-looking country, then this approach doesn’t really work.”

“India recognises the U.K. needs immigration control but it needs to have a balanced approach,” says Mr. Ladwa, pointing to the imbalance in the visa regime for Chinese and Indian visitors to the U.K. (last year Britain relaxed rules for Chinese visitors, and including a new 10-year visa at no added cost). “The feeling is that there must be some concrete gestures on the part of the U.K. towards India that demonstrate it’s open for business and recognises and respects the value that Indian business, students and tourists can add to the U.K. economy.”

The Pakistan issue

Also likely to overshadow the visit will be one of the long-running thorns in the side of the relationship: Britain’s stance on Kashmir and Pakistan. That Britain is not likely to follow in the steps of the U.S. and issue a statement strongly condemning “cross-border terrorism” became even clearer earlier this week when in response to a parliamentary petition that had attracted nearly 20,000 signatures calling on the government to condemn Pakistan, the government insisted that the country had made “significant sacrifices in opposing terrorism.”

For Britain getting its overall message right in New Delhi will be crucial and could be the difference between the visit being a sobering reminder of the challenges in navigating the global stage while posturing on immigration, or a triumphalist moment for the Brexiteers that their strategy can indeed succeed.

vidya.ram@thehindu.co.in

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