What ‘desi son-in-law’ at No 10 really wants

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

Britain’s PM calls himself “India’s son-in-law”. Presumably, the reference is to his divorced second wife’s mother who was, indeed, a Sikh.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: AP)

As Boris Johnson quietly turns his back on all those brave boasts of an advantageous and amicable divorce from the European Union and prepares to crash out with no settlement at all, his vaunted Indian connection recalls a story about Pope John XXIII. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, one of a poor Lombardy sharecropper’s 13 children, Angelo was blest with a wry sense of humour. When a fashionable Roman hostess asked after his appointment as a cardinal if he was related to the noble Roncalli clan, the future Pope replied: “Hitherto, no. But henceforth we shall be more and more related.”

Britain’s Prime Minister calls himself “India’s son-in-law”. Presumably, the reference is to his divorced second wife’s mother who was, indeed, a Sikh. If it comes to dropping names, her first husband’s father was a prominent contractor who built parts of New Delhi. However, her Sikh husband wasn’t Johnson’s father-in-law. Dip Singh, his ex-mother-in-law, married a second husband, Charles Wheeler, English, a former BBC correspondent in New Delhi; Marina Wheeler Johnson, a barrister, was their daughter. This tenuous Indian connection seems to have been reason enough to attend the Baisakhi celebrations in Trafalgar Square as his first official engagement as mayor of London. It also entitles him to speak of the “Indian relatives” for whom he carries Scotch whisky whenever he visits India.

Given the number of South Asian immigrants in Britain, courting Indians can be an occupational hazard for British politicians. Theresa May preferred the richer and more powerful Chinese when it came to granting visas, but that didn’t stop her from draping a saree and visiting temples in search of votes. So did Cherie Blair, although her husband worshipped at a different shrine in Washington. Boris Johnson does too probably, President Donald Trump being the only global politician who can out-bluster even Britain’s new Prime Minister. So, having packed his government with Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma and — stretching a point — Sajid Javed, to placate one deity, Boris Johnson is seeking an Anglo-American trade pact to appease another. President Trump has made reassuring noises, even to the extent of saying that nothing stands in the way of a partnership now that Britain is discarding the “impediment” of the European Union.

But as Philip Hammond and Liam Fox, two of Theresa May’s senior economic ministers, warned, an Anglo-US trade deal won’t be that easy. First, EU law won’t allow Britain to negotiate with the Americans until the divorce is finalised. Second, so much of US trade policy is handled by individual American states that the federal government in Washington has only a limited role in negotiating and signing a pact. Third, with a presidential election due next year, the US President cannot but defer to states’ interests.

It’s not the army alone that marches on its stomach. So does diplomacy. Mr Trump is bound to seek an opening in Britain for US investors. Richard Nixon was inspired by a similar objective when he waxed lyrical about India’s new middle class and the scope for selling them Whirlpool washing machines, Domino’s pizzas and other American products. Deploring that while “trade with China has gone up about 45 per cent in the last 10 years, trade with India has not increased” — “Actually I think volumes have remained almost static. We need to do far more” — Boris wants to sell us whisky.

With a saffron turban wound around his head, he told Sikhs in the Bristol gurdwara in 2017 that whenever he went to Mumbai or Delhi he had to take “clinkie” (meaning bottles of Johnnie Walker) in his baggage, thereby provoking a woman in the congregation to outraged protest at this mention of alcohol in a sacred place. But, as Johnson shrewdly pointed out, Britain lost out on each bottle he took to India. He may have heard of that glorious era of austerity when imports being forbidden, Indians were reputed to gulp down more “Scotch” than the whole of Scotland produced. “As you may know,” he explained, “there is duty of 150 per cent in India on imports of Scotch whisky, so we have to bring it in duty-free for our relatives. But imagine what we could do if there was a free trade deal with India — which there will be.”

Will there? Not unless his government agrees, as its predecessor would not, to allow Indian students to spend two further years in Britain supposedly gaining practical experience. Without breathing a word on contentious visas, Boris Johnson promised Indian constituents that he would forge a “truly special” bilateral relationship. He had told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that since India and Britain were both modern democracies, they should work together to promote trade and prosperity. It’s more than whisky that he seeks to sell. Like Richard Nixon, he too is eyeing the huge retail market. “India is a massive static market for the UK, but I would also like to see India opening up to more of our great brands.” India’s ban on multi-brand retail supermarkets like Sainsbury or Waitrose keeps out British shopkeepers. “Just imagine that!”

Our “craze-for-phoren” rich would no doubt welcome such stores where they can splash their wealth. But the stalwarts of the ruling BJP might feel a shade queasy about publicly admitting Boris Johnson’s argument that Winston Churchill would have been “very proud at the continuing legacy of Britain in those places around the world, and particularly I think he would have been amazed at India, the world’s largest democracy, and a stark contrast with other less fortunate places that haven’t had the benefit of British rule”. If, as seems likely, Prime Minister Modi manages to establish the same kind of boisterous relationship with Boris Johnson as he seems to have done with Donald Trump and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, they must find a way around that minor obstacle of ideological consistency.