India corona update 
Total Fatalities 506,520
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Today's Fatalities 1,217
Today's Cases 67,084
India corona update 
Total Fatalities 506,520
Total Cases 42,478,060
Today's Fatalities 1,217
Today's Cases 67,084
  • Wednesday, June 07, 2023


EXCLUSIVE: Issues such as BBC controversy marginal in larger scheme of India-UK relations, says Harsh Pant

British PM Rishi Sunak with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

As a fast-growing economy, India today has drawn the attention of both the eastern and western worlds. The convergence of New Delhi’s strategic interests with some key nations has become a key pillar of its foreign policy today. Frontline western democracies such as the US and UK have taken a special care for their ties with India for diverse reasons – political, strategic and economic.

Prof Harsh V Pant
Prof Harsh V Pant (Picture: King’s College London)

India’s relations with the UK is a much discussed subject at the moment with both sides trying to accomplish a free trade agreement (FTA) between them fast. However, despite the broad convergence, relations between the two major democracies and economies on either side of the Suez Canal have also witnessed irritants of late – be it in form of the BBC’s controversial documentary on Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the Indian government’s income-tax searches at some of the broadcaster’s India offices or the recent attack on the Indian high commission in London by pro-Khalistan protesters or a claim made by home secretary Suella Braverman last October that Indian migrants overstay in the UK.

Do these developments challenge the larger cooperation between India and the post-Brexit UK?

India Weekly spoke to Harsh V Pant, a professor of International Relations with Kings’ India Institute, London, and director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, about the state of affairs in the India-UK relations and whether they face any serious threat.

Queen Elizabeth II
Art school students give final touches to paintings made as a tribute to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in Mumbai, India, on September 9, 2022, a day after she passed away at 96. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

India-UK people-to-people contacts

When asked about the two aspects of the India-UK relations – government-to-government and people-to-people contacts and whether the latter, thanks to a strong Indian diaspora in the UK, help in absorbing shocks created between the two sides politically, Pant said while they do help in preventing the overall bilateral relations from deteriorating, political issues also limit their potential of people-to-people contact to some extent.

“People-to-people relations between the two nations are long standing since they engage at many levels. Politically, India and the UK have close relations now, thanks to their strategic convergence, even if they have certain differences. But while people-to-people contact prevents bilateral ties from worsening, political issues also limit the possibility of people-to-people contact to a certain degree,” he told India Weekly.

However, Pant, who has penned the book New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis, does not feel that irritants such as the BBC controversy or Braverman’s remarks can derail the overall political comfort which is developing between the two countries.

BBC documentary 'India: The Modi Question'
People watch the BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’, on a screen installed publicly by India’s opposition Congress party in Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, on January 24, 2023. (Photo by ARUN CHANDRABOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

“Both nations, for instance, have a lot to gain from the FTA and despite the fact that the UK’s domestic political turmoil has hurt the procedure to conclude the deal and periodic issues have cropped up, its administration has pursued it consistently,” he said.

Yet, there have been reactions in the west over the Indian government’s moves against the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and that India’s human rights records have not been ideal in the Modi era. While juxtaposing those with the fact that the UK has wooed India, particularly after Brexit, one might feel that London’s India policy is facing a dilemma.

India UK relations
India’s commerce and trade minister Piyush Goyal (L) greets the UK’s former international trade secretary Liam Fox at an India-UK Joint Economic and Trade Committee on July 15, 2019, in London. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

‘UK’s India policy has no dilemma’

Pant said, “I do not really think that the UK has any dilemma on this. India is not a perfect democracy but is a democracy nonetheless. So if the UK could have maintained a very good relation with communist China in the past, then why not India? Some reservations might be there but the overall strategic interests are not affected.

“All British prime ministers who have served while Modi has been India’s PM have engaged with him. It all depends on the UK’s priorities. It with India at a strategic level with focus on issues such as post-Brexit future, Indo-Pacific developments and emerging economies. India’s foreign policy is focusing on having partnerships with like-minded democracies and the UK is one of them. Issues such as the BBC controversy are marginal in the larger scheme of things.”

Former British prime minister David Cameron speaks as his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi looks on at Wembley Stadium during a welcome rally for Modi on November 13, 2015, in London. (Photo by Justin Tallis – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and former British PM Theresa May attend a press conference during an agreement signing ceremony in New Delhi on November 7, 2016. (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

Pant said a number of western countries and entities such as the US or the European Union have also changed their India policies over the South Asian nation’s strategic and economic significance and the UK has been no exception.

The expert, however, felt that the Khalistan issue could be a bigger challenge for the India-UK ties.

When asked about the pro-Khalistan protesters attacking the Indian high commission in London and pulling down of the Tricolour on March 19 which led to a an outrage in both India and the UK and New Delhi lodging a strong protest with the British diplomatic establishment, Pant said the British authorities could have handled the issue better.

Khalistani elements attempt to pull down the Indian flag but the flag was rescued by the Indian security personnel at the High Commission of India, in London
Pro-Khalistan supporters attempt to pull down the Indian flag at the Indian high commission in London on March 19, 2023. (ANI Photo)

“It has been seen that these elements exist in the UK’s political culture and climate. There is a pattern in these protests now and they are just now another occurrence. The Amritpal Singh episode has given them a pretext of a revival. The pro-Khalistan movement finds little sympathy in India and it is an externally driven agenda which finds more traction in countries such as Canada and the UK. I am afraid it is not going to die out any time soon,” he said.

On India-UK FTA

According to Pant, the in-process FTA underscores economic importance of both India and the UK.

“While London looks at long term gains through the agreement, India too has changed its stance on free trade deals. The Asian nation has not been an easy country to make FTAs with. It is not part of any multilateral agreements as we have seen it pulling out of partnerships such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But now, India is concluding FTAs with various nations such as the UAE, Canada while talks are on with many others. For the UK, the FTA is key as it involves access to a large market and looking up to the Indo-Pacific while moving away from China,” he said.

The UK’s current political leadership looks to be fighting problems on all fronts while India seems to have a more stable government under Modi. Successive Conservative prime ministers since the Brexit referendum of 2016 have maintained a good relation with Modi, as it has been discussed above, but could things change if Labour comes to power tomorrow?

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Disagreeing that there could be a drastic change in the scenario, Pant said no government in the UK can ignore India. “We have seen how Labour leader Keir Starmer has been reaching out to India. The two countries’ strategic convergence is too big to ignore. But it is true that the UK’s political instability has hit key developments such as the FTA and it would have been concluded by now had Boris Johnson continued as the prime minister,” he said.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with British prime minister Boris Johnson
The UK’s former prime minister Boris Johnson with Indian PM Narendra Modi at COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

India in a new world order

Recent developments in global politics indicate towards the development of a new world order and India has fast emerged a key player in that. “The world order has changed from what it was in the post-Cold War era when China played a central role. The West is now taking remedial steps under the new reality and India is gaining from it,” Pant told India Weekly.

He added that the country’s political stability and economic growth play a key role in the developing world and it has emerged as an alternative to the China fixation. Pant also said that globalisation in current times is also witnessing a shift to more trust-based partnerships and India is a beneficiary of this change.

“It is to be seen how India can make use of these advantages in today’s reality to boost its position in the new world order,” he said.

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