On the face of it, the time hardly seems propitious for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reach out to his foreign friends. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered electoral setbacks in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and been reprimanded by the courts. People blame his government for the mix of complacency and inefficiency that aggravated the fearsome second wave of Covid-19. But stricken India desperately needs the emergency medical aid that is pouring in from several richer countries.
Britain is one of them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs a treaty with India, especially after Brexit, and also to highlight the failure of his predecessor, Theresa May, to secure one. Undaunted by a series of setbacks, he bubbles that the “Enhanced Trade Partnership” and the “memorandum of understanding on India-UK Migration and Mobility Partnership” that he and Prime Minister Modi had endorsed on May 4 “mark the beginning of a new era in the UK-India relationship”.
Britain sees India as an Indo-Pacific partner in the great game of countering China. Britain is also the country with which India interacts most intimately at many levels.
As Mr Johnson put it without inquiring too closely into the downside, “a living bridge” unites the two countries. Given that demographic link, British public opinion reacts swiftly and spontaneously to domestic Indian developments like the 1984 Sikh carnage, the Gujarat communal killings in 2002, constitutional changes in the former Jammu and Kashmir state, and the Citizenship Amendment Act. That is only natural. Britain’s 2011 census recorded 1,451,862 Indian-origin persons, accounting for 2.3 per cent of the population. Migration has long been a contentious issue, and British-Indians are particularly curious about the new deal’s provision for employment for 3,000 young Indian professionals annually, in return for New Delhi taking back Indian illegals in Britain.
Identifying and repatriating these illegals is bound to cause friction. If the “noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”, to quote Samuel Johnson, the flight to Heathrow airport is beaten in attractiveness only by the flight to New York for many aspiring Indians. Very few Indians who go nowadays to a Western country to study ever return to the motherland, with its bleak employment opportunities.
The phenomenon isn’t exclusively Indian. A special British scheme to facilitate the import of chefs from Bangladesh for so-called “Indian” restaurants at once attracted floods of Bangladeshis whose only aim was to migrate to the West. The scheme was quickly abandoned.
When migration was discussed during Theresa May’s 2016 visit to India, London claimed that as many as 100,000 Indians lived illegally in Britain. New Delhi disputed this figure, throwing in the counter-argument that tens of thousands of young Indians who go to Britain to study are denied job opportunities there. Another charge was that Britain is about the only country in the world that counts post-graduate Indian students staying on for a year or two’s practical training as migrants.
Indians felt especially aggrieved when visa rules for Chinese students were greatly liberalised. One obvious explanation lies in the old saying: “Money talks!” With £8.63 billion in Chinese investment in the UK (with some of them being in public utility undertakings) and around 800 Chinese companies employing 71,000 people in the UK, Beijing could demand concessions. Moreover, Beijing’s rigid controls guaranteed that all its students and trainees would sooner or later be recalled. Britain was not afraid of becoming a vast Chinatown. The repatriation of Indian “illegals” is supposed to facilitate the legal movement of students and professionals and enhance cooperation in addressing illegal migration.
But the late and much maligned right-wing British politician, Enoch Powell, was not alone in warning that “rivers of blood” would flow unless non-white immigration was checked. London is so acutely conscious of sensitivity about Commonwealth citizens from Asia and Africa that even Clement Attlee’s Labour government back in the 1940s quietly set up a committee to examine how the British Nationality Act of 1948, which granted colonials the right to enter, live and work in Britain, could be revised without creating a huge uproar.
Apart from a series of agreements on climate change, technology and
pharmaceuticals, the Narendra Modi-Boris Johnson negotiations had finalised Indian investment worth £1 billion to create over 6,500 jobs in Britain. The other significant outcome was a commitment by both sides to begin trade talks this year to “negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement”, remove trade barriers, and double bilateral trade by 2030.
The partnership deal will lift all export barriers on goods ranging from British apples to medical devices and open up India's legal services to British firms. In return, Britain agreed to improve access to its fisheries and nursing sectors.
Mr Johnson probably hopes that Britain will upstage the European Union and sign an FTA with India first. Negotiations with the EU, which started in 2007, have been stalled since 2013 but were resumed on May 8 when the 16th India-EU virtual summit was held at Porto, Portugal. India was represented by Mr Modi and the EU by Charles Michel, European Council president, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, besides all the 27 member countries. The unsurprising news was that they decided to restart talks on trade, investment protection and geographical indications.
The major sticking points in the India-EU negotiations — tariffs on automobiles, wines and spirits, restrictions the on free movement of professionals, data security status for the IT sector, market access and waiver of patent rights on Covid-related innovations — are important but are not explosive like migration. Ironically, Saturday’s summit host, Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa, is an “Overseas Citizen of India.”
Many assume that the presence of three ethnic Indians (Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Alok Sharma) in important positions in Mr Johnson’s Cabinet will make it easier for other immigrants. But it’s a worldwide trend for those who have boarded the gravy train diligently to ward off any newcomers. As home secretary, Priti Patel has already acquired a formidable anti-immigrant reputation.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author