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Will India-UK Relations Remain Warm Under Labor Rule?

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Will India-UK Relations Remain Warm Under Labor Rule?

Traditionally, Labor governments have tended to lean toward Pakistan on India-Pakistan issues like Kashmir. Will Prime Minister Starmer follow that trend?

Will India-UK Relations Remain Warm Under Labor Rule?

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer of the Labor Party, July 6, 2024.

Credit: X/UK Prime Minister

The United Kingdom has elected Keir Starmer’s Labor Party to office with a massive mandate, ending 14 years of Conservative Party rule that had seen a substantial warming of India-U.K. ties.

Under the Conservative Party’s watch, ties between India and the U.K. deepened considerably with dialogues at various levels – between ministers of defense, trade, finance and through biennial India-U.K. summits between prime ministers. There was the elevation of ties to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” and a “Roadmap 2030”  unveiled — both in 2021 — to revitalize people-to-people linkages and re-energize trade, investment and technological collaboration. There was also the launch of talks on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two in 2022 though it hasn’t been concluded yet.

Historians and analysts alike have often pointed out how India’s ties with the U.K.’s two main political parties — Tory and Labor — have changed over time. It was Tory Prime Minister Winston Churchill who denied India self-rule; India got its independence when Labor Prime Minister Clement Atlee was at the helm in 1947.

More recently, India’s ties with the Labor Party have fluctuated with some notable lows. During a visit to India in 1997 by the late Queen Elizabeth, to mark five decades of India-Pakistan independence from British rule, then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook angered New Delhi with an offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute. New Delhi has always sought a bilateral solution with Islamabad.

Another Labor Government Foreign Secretary David Miliband also upset India in 2008 when he advised New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan so that there was no repeat of attacks like the November 26-29 Mumbai terrorist strike.

Cut to 2024, and the question on everyone’s mind is how will Labor’s term in office under Starmer impact India-U.K. ties? If the first signs are anything to go by, Starmer seems keen to ensure continuity in ties.

“The Prime Minister (Starmer) said he looked forward to further deepening the strong and respectful relationship between both countries and welcomed Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi’s leadership on key global challenges, such as climate change and economic growth,” said a U.K. government readout of a telephone conversation between the two prime ministers on July 6. The two agreed that “defence and security, critical and emerging technology and climate change,” were areas that the two countries could work together. Notably, these were the areas listed in the India-U.K. Roadmap 2030. On the FTA, Starmer said he was ready “to conclude a deal that worked for both sides.”

The Indian readout of the conversation too spoke of agreement on working toward “an early conclusion of a mutually beneficial India-U.K. Free Trade Agreement.” Starmer and Modi also “reaffirmed their commitment to further deepen and advance the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between India and the U.K.,” it added.

Intent notwithstanding, clinching a mutually beneficial FTA may be some way off. With immigration being an intensely debated subject in the U.K. politically, India’s demand for greater access for its skilled professionals into the U.K. could require some delicate negotiations. India’s wish list also includes relaxation on the carbon tax that the U.K. plans to implement, following in the footsteps of the European Union. The U.K., on its part, wants deep cuts in import duties on Scotch whiskey, electric vehicles and confectionary items.

New Delhi will also be carefully watching how the Starmer government deals with issues of particular concern to India.

One is the Kashmir issue mentioned earlier. Traditionally, India has kept a wary eye on the Labor Party’s leaning toward Pakistan on the matter – mainly due to the support the party has traditionally received from the Kashmiri diaspora who migrated to the U.K. from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. They have been a major vote base for Labor over the decades. Former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn had raised hackles in India after he criticized the 2019 revocation of Article 370 of India’s constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. It was during Corbyn’s watch that the Labor Party passed a resolution in September 2019 supporting “international intervention in Kashmir and a call for UN led-referendum.” While Starmer may want to keep Kashmir off the agenda, a lot will depend on whether his MPs – pushed by their vote bank – will seek to keep the spotlight on Kashmir.

How the Starmer government deals with the heightened activism of Sikh separatists in the U.K. will also test India-U.K. relations. Recent years have seen a surge in Sikh separatist activity, in many Western countries including the U.K., in support of a separate state of Khalistan carved out of India’s Punjab. In March 2023, the Indian High Commission in London was attacked by a group of Sikhs with some succeeding in entering the lawns of the High Commission. Visuals on social media and television showed one of the protestors pulling down India’s national flag. This triggered a strong protest from India. News reports later said the U.K. police had arrested one person involved in the protests.

To be sure, Starmer did try to reach out to the U.K.’s (mainly Indian origin) Hindu community ahead of the polls by visiting a temple in north London. There he spoke of eradicating so-called “Hinduphobia” from the U.K.

The Labor manifesto too spoke of the party’s intent to “build and strengthen modern partnerships with allies and regional powers,” including India.

“We will seek a new strategic partnership with India, including a free trade agreement, as well as deepening co-operation in areas like security, education, technology and climate change,” it said.

It’s early days yet to determine the Starmer government’s policies on these matters.

For now, the Roadmap 2030 provides a basis to push the partnership forward – the areas identified included trade, climate, science and technology besides defense on which to ground the partnership.

Defense is definitely an area of promise for joint collaboration for both countries given India is looking to catapult itself into the big league of military hardware exporting nations.

Similar partnerships can be struck in pharmaceuticals. And there is already a successful template for companies from both sides to follow. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s largest vaccine maker by number i.e. the Serum Institute of India Pvt Limited, had teamed up with U.K.’s AstraZeneca to manufacture Covishield vaccines in 2021. The India-made vaccines were made available to the world.

Given the common English language, robust ties without rancor despite the U.K. being the former colonial power, and a strong diaspora, the latent potential of the relationship is immense. To realize it though, both countries will need to be careful and act deftly to remove or manage any wrinkles that may crop up in the relationship.