Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 8 May 2024


UK-India path to friendship is littered with obstacles

The writer is director of UK in a Changing Europe, a think-tank. Its new report, in collaboration with the King’s India Institute, examines UK-India relations Anand Menon · 9 May 2024

Remember when foreign policy was (relatively) simple? When, as the adage went, politics “stopped at the water’s edge”? Those days are long gone. And nowhere is this clearer than in the relationship between the UK and India, where a mutual desire for deeper ties is complicated by politics both domestically and globally.

There are good reasons for both sides to pursue closer relations. Brexit necessitated a reorientation of UK foreign and trade policy away from Europe. Plus, the deterioration of London’s relationship with Beijing has strengthened the case for stronger links with India.

China also looms large in the minds of the Indian establishment. Border clashes in 2020 prompted a desire to reinforce ties with western nations. And while London’s collaboration with Islamabad during the war in Afghanistan was regarded warily by New Delhi, its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and willingness to criticise Pakistan for laxity in preventing the financing of terrorism, have since altered this calculation.

Consequently, we have witnessed a slew of initiatives aimed at cementing ties. Prime ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson in 2021 concluded a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. They also adopted an ambitious “Roadmap 2030” promoting convergence in trade and investment, defence and security, and climate action.

Meanwhile, trade between the countries, especially in services, has expanded rapidly. Again, each side has strong incentives. The UK is keen to sign trade deals to underline the success of its post-Brexit strategy. India is also in the trade deal market — it signed an agreement with the European Free Trade Association in 2024 and has approached UK negotiations seriously and constructively.

Which is where politics begins to intrude. There is strong opposition in India to proposals to open up the domestic market to foreign car imports. Equally, there is resistance in the UK to demands that social security contributions paid by Indian workers in the UK during intra-company transfers be reimbursed.

Immigration has fostered the development of a large, politically engaged Indian diaspora in the UK. The packed 2015 event i n Modi’s honour at Wembley Stadium demonstrated the influence he wields over this community. Then there’s the £3bn that India received in 2018 from the UK diaspora.

And India has made its presence felt in Britain. During clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester in 2022, inflammatory social media posts originating in India did not help the situation. Statements from the Indian and Pakistani high commissions underlined how intercommunity relations can bleed into international relations.

Hindu groups were active in encouraging Indian Hindus to abandon Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, not least because of its stance on Kashmir. The Conservative party is anxious to capitalise not only on this but on the relative warmth felt by Indian Hindus towards a party led by Rishi Sunak, and has overseen a large increase in immigration from India.

The Labour party has also signalled its desire to strengthen relations with India. But, if it gains power, it will face a number of challenges. A probable move towards more extreme, exclusionary nationalism during a third Modi term will confront Sir Keir Starmer with a stark choice between progressivism and realism, but also with pressure from both Muslim and Hindu voters at home.

The relationship between the UK and India will continue to evolve. Some aspects will do so irrespective of politics — Indian cultural influence now extends far beyond curry. But when it comes to economic and political ties, both countries look set to perform a delicate balancing act for some time to come.

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