Away from the glare of television cameras and his domestic critics, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom last week has managed to radically reshape the contours of the India-UK partnership. Where the media was keen to highlight the controversies surrounding Modi, he has managed to redefine the India-UK relationship for the new century. Though the two countries sealed £9 billion worth of commercial deals in the retail, logistics, energy, finance, IT, education, and health sectors, it was the perceptual change in this bilateral relationship that will have a lasting impact on its future trajectory, which was seemingly headed nowhere before this visit.
Modi’s visit came at a time when there were widespread doubts in the UK regarding New Delhi’s seriousness about the bilateral at all, despite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s impressive outreach to India. Ever since he came to office six years ago, Cameron had made a serious effort to upgrade India-UK ties. In fact, in his first term, India was at the top of the list of emerging powers his government decided to court, only to be snubbed by India’s government, then led by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition. This is one of the reasons why, in Cameron’s second term, China has received outsized attention. Chinese President’s Xi Jinping’s successful visit to the UK last month resulted in the two nations signing £40bn in contracts, including for a project to build a nuclear power station in Britain. Modi therefore recognized that it was time for him to reciprocate Cameron’s investment in India.
Indian diplomats have a tendency to say that the UK is nothing but 51st state of the United States. While this may be clever rhetoric, it is counterproductive and myopic. In recent times, there has been a divergence between the U.S. and the UK on a range of issues. Modi’s visit has managed to successfully put India-UK ties back on track with redefined terms: India is no longer a supplicant, but an emerging power. It is even providing jobs to the British economy. Modi’s visit to Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by India’s Tata Motors, was meant to underscore this changing dynamic. His outreach to the Indian diaspora also signalled the increasing power of the British-Indian community in UK politics. When Cameron mentioned the growing list of British-Indian MPs and suggested that soon a British-Indian might even the prime minister of the UK, he was merely stating the obvious.
Economics, of course, stands at the heart of the India-UK relationship. Cameron wants to make the UK a part of the Indian economy’s success story while Modi would like greater British investment in support of his ‘Make in India’ initiative. India can leverage other British advantages as well. From education, health, culture, infrastructure, science, and high-technology to areas such as policing and intelligence, Britain is still a global leader. India needs to keep this in mind as it approaches its engagement with the UK. Britain is keen to share its expertise at this point to help in building capacities in India. India needs to be more receptive. Modi’s visit made it clear that he sees the UK as a vital partner for India’s domestic economy.
More significantly, Modi has made the relationship more forward looking. He made an attempt to lay the legacy of Britain’s imperial past to rest when he suggested that “the soil of London” had given birth to India’s “freedom struggle,” referencing India’s numerous freedom fighters who studied in the UK. Moreover, where in the past, Pakistan was viewed as a key stumbling block in India-UK ties, this was not the case this time around. Refreshingly, in his multiple public engagements in the UK, Modi never once mentioned Pakistan. The only reference to the Pakistan came in the Modi-Cameron joint statement in which the two leaders reiterated “their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice,” even as they underscored their resolve “to work together to disrupt all financial and tactical support for terrorist networks including ISIL, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Haqqanis and associated groups.” The two sides managed to successfully conclude negotiations on a bilateral Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement signed in 2010, providing a framework for further cooperation. The UK reiterated its strong support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
Where the UK has failed is in articulating a broader strategic vision for its ties with India. This is related to its failure to view Asia beyond economics and trade. Modi had an opportunity to clarify some of these larger issues during his trip. Both sides seem to recognize this challenge. In the first speech by a serving Indian prime minister to the British Parliament, Modi said that the UK and India were “two strong economies and two innovative societies,” but their relationship “must set higher ambitions.” Modi’s visit has succeeded in changing the course of India-UK ties considerably. It will be now up to the two nations to build on the success of the Indian prime minister’s state visit.