Yes, Boris Johnson is an ‘Indophile’, but is he the man to reboot India-UK relations?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s two-day visit has been accompanied by a feverish diplomatic build-up with Downing Street citing a num...

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s two-day visit has been accompanied by a feverish diplomatic build-up with Downing Street citing a number of “firsts” including the rather banal fact that this will be the first time a UK prime minister will visit Gujarat. There’s talk of an “ambitious” agenda aimed at giving new momentum to India-UK relations.

But strip it of the hype, and it’s not hard to see what's really driving the visit — the Ukraine crisis and Britain's desire to see India play a more robust role. Coming, as it does, close on the heels of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ visit, it is clearly meant to pile pressure on Delhi to moderate its neutral stance — evident from Johnson's remarks ahead of his trip that “as we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together”.

Other issues on the agenda are simply add-ons — a long all-season laundry list ranging from expediting negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement (predicted to boost bilateral trade by up to £28 billion annually by 2035) to a review of the India-UK Roadmap 2030 and “intensifying cooperation across the full spectrum of bilateral ties”. Intriguingly, there’s no mention of immigration, a constant running sore in bilateral relations because of Britain’s hardline on the issue. His predecessor Theresa May’s visit to India in November 2016 unravelled after she refused to budge from an immigration policy that India views as discriminatory.

May’s visit is worth recalling for another reason too. It also took place on the back of similar euphoria as has been generated around Johnson’s trip, and was expected to pave the way for closer post-Brexit relations with India. She hailed India as one of the “most important and closest friends” and “a leading power in the world”. Her visit, she said, would “bolster bilateral strategic ties in areas like defence, security and trade”.

In the event, it mostly flopped and was widely described as “underwhelming”. As Arundhati Sharma, a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, wrote: “There was some progress in the areas of defence, trade, climate change, science and technology and international governance. Yet, the visit did not result in a remarkable achievement, particularly on the immigration policy front. In fact, it appeared that in terms of the policy of immigration, Prime Minister May has prioritised her political survival, instead of economic interests.”

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Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street in 2019 raised hopes of a much-awaited bounce in India-UK relations. He was seen as a more pragmatic leader than his bullish predecessor. And the optics couldn’t have been better. A self-proclaimed Indophile who never forgot to boast of his “India connection”, calling himself India’s “son-in-law” through his estranged wife Marina Wheeler’s Indian ancestry. He also enjoyed (still does) the advantage of perhaps the only one among the current crop of British politicians best known in India.

Besides, over the years he has developed close links with the Indian diaspora, particularly the BJP/Narendra Modi-leaning sections. Many rich British Indians, including steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, bankrolled his leadership campaign. He might have struggled without their backing. And, to be fair, he more than returned the compliment by filling his cabinet with several high-profile Indian-origin figures.

His appointment of Priti Patel, a Modi supporter, as home secretary, and elevation of Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak to senior positions went down well with the Indian diaspora. His aides cited it as evidence of his pro-India tilt.

So far, so good. But these optics don’t match the reality of Johnson’s vacuous India policy which has barely moved from the May era when India-UK relations sank to a new low. True, there has been some tinkering around immigration rules, especially in relation to student visas, but nothing has been done to address India’s main concerns and its long-standing demand for a preferential visa regime on the lines of the one China enjoys.

There’s a great deal of scepticism whether Johnson even has anything like a coherent India policy, given his reputation for lacking a focus and his won't for grandstanding to suit the occasion. His so-called “India pivot” is prompted by Britain’s scramble for new markets outside Europe after Brexit which deprived it of a captive 500-million strong European market. In his public comments, he has suggested addressing Indian concerns on various issues as part of a comprehensive deal but has done little to follow up on it.

The fact is that Britain has a reputation of talking a good talk but failing to deliver. Johnson’s two immediate predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron were fond of describing India-UK relations as one the “most important relationships of the 21st century” but typically failed to walk the talk. Not only that, they took several contentious policy decisions that adversely affected Indian citizens — such as retrospective changes to residency rules for high-skilled immigrants which forced many legally settled Indian migrants to return home.

Indians have also been affected by frequent changes to visa rules and intra-company transfers. Indian businesses say visa rules are a deterrence to doing business with Britain. In another discriminatory move, India was excluded from an expanded list of countries that enjoy preferred status for student visas. China, on the other hand, was included in the list. Not surprisingly, the move caused outrage in Indian circles. Business leader Lord Bilimoria called it “another kick in the teeth for India”.

There’s also pressure on India to accept thousands of illegal immigrants who, Britain claims, are Indian citizens. A claim India disputes arguing that many of these people lack identity papers to prove their Indian citizenship. It is insisting on independent background checks amid fears that some of them might pose a threat to national security. During his 2018 UK visit to attend the Commonwealth summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to sign an MoU on the issue but the move was abandoned at the last minute after the home ministry raised national security concerns.

Johnson’s stand on the issue has been as unhelpful as his predecessors, though during his Brexit referendum campaign he promised to open up immigration from India and other Commonwealth countries once the free movement of workers from the European Union stopped. Many Indian expats voted for Brexit on the basis of this and other measures he promised for the benefit of people from Commonwealth countries. But after winning the referendum he went AWOL. Today, Britain follows an Australian-style one-size-fits-all points system with no exemptions for Indian or other Commonwealth citizens.

For all the goody-goody public rhetoric, India-UK relations are flagging. They are often jokingly likened to those between an amiable old couple muddling through for old time’s sake but lacking any spark. At the heart of the problem is Britain’s lingering colonial mindset that still informs much of its foreign policy towards its former colonies. It ignores the fact that many are now major economic powers in their own right who expect to be treated as equal partners.

Britain’s own Parliament, in a strongly-worded report, warned the government that it risked being left behind in the global race to engage with India if it didn’t change its current approach. The report from the influential Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee said: “India’s place in the world is changing fast and the UK government needs to adjust its strategy to fit India’s enhanced influence and power; the UK cannot afford to be complacent or rely on historical ties.”

Is Boris Johnson the man to do it? Yes, if he puts his mind to it as with Brexit and Ukraine. No, if his fluffy India policy is a guide.

The author is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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India World News: Yes, Boris Johnson is an ‘Indophile’, but is he the man to reboot India-UK relations?
Yes, Boris Johnson is an ‘Indophile’, but is he the man to reboot India-UK relations?
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