British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in India on Sunday on her first bilateral visit outside Europe to reinvigorate the India-United Kingdom strategic partnership. May has suggested that her three-day maiden visit to India shows the importance of UK-India bilateral ties and will be a true celebration of relations and shared ambition for the future. During the visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join May to inaugurate the India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi, jointly hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Department of Science and Technology. May would also raise the issue of a free trade agreement with India. New Delhi, though interested, is expected to wait until after ‘Brexit’ — or the UK’s exit from the European Union — plays out.
May’s visit to India comes at a crucial time for the UK. She intends to start formal negotiations on leaving the European Union (EU) by the end of March 2017, putting Britain on course to exit the bloc — and potentially the European single market — by early 2019. As the UK struggles to re-define its global role post-Brexit, May has often mentioned India among the priority countries for a free trade agreement to boost the country’s ties outside the EU. At the Conservative Party conference last month, she asserted that “Countries including Canada, China, India, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea have already told us they would welcome talks on future free trade agreements. And we have already agreed to start scoping discussions on trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.” For May, Brexit means Brexit, and she fully intends to make a success of it.
As home secretary in the cabinet of David Cameron for six years, May was a hard-liner on immigration though her policies, more often than not, failed to yield the desired results. The Home Office, under her leadership, often resorted to unseemly gimmicks such as hiring vans to tour Indian-dominated areas of London with big ‘Go Home’ signs, apparently aimed at illegal immigrants. But as prime minister, May has hailed the contribution of British-Indians, suggesting that she would highlight their success during her first official visit to India. In her Diwali message, she said that “in Britain’s Indian communities, we can see the good that can be done when people’s talents are unleashed. I think of all those running their own businesses, taking risks and working hard so that they can provide for their families and take on staff.” She has also made it clear that the UK’s stand on Kashmir remains unchanged and it is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan to address, underlining that Kashmir was unlikely to be on the agenda during her bilateral talks with Modi.
On Kashmir as well as the broader trajectory of India-UK ties, May will be building on the legacy of her predecessor. Cameron had championed Indian interests like few British prime ministers in recent years. India and Britain had forged a ‘strategic partnership’ during former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005, but it remained a partnership only in name. The Conservatives were keen on imparting it with new momentum. But the Labour government’s legacy on India was very complex and Cameron’s government needed great diplomatic finesse to manage the challenges.
Cameron’s government had made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the sub-continent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. Cameron himself made all the right noises when it came to India. He warned Pakistan against promoting any “export of terror,” whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to “look both ways.” He proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain, like India, was determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network, or Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain. More significantly, the British Prime Minister has also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful trip to the UK last year was a reflection of the transformation in India-UK ties under Cameron.
Where the UK has failed so far is in articulating a broader strategic vision for its ties with India and this is related to its failure to view Asia beyond economics and trade. In the first speech by a serving Indian Prime Minister to the British Parliament, Modi said the UK and India were “two strong economies and two innovative societies” but their relationship “must set higher ambitions.” Though the rise of India as an economic power is transforming British attitudes towards India across the political spectrum, the opposition Labour Party continues to see India through the lens of human rights and the impact of its Pakistani immigrant support base remains strong. The UK is the largest European investor in India and India is the second largest investor in the UK. Indian students are the second largest group in Britain. There are significant historical, linguistic, and cultural ties that remain untapped. So a robust partnership with the Tory government is a good idea for India. Modi’s visit to the UK last year managed to change the course of the India-UK ties considerably. It will be now up to May to build on that momentum.