Indo-British links on a new track? – In Persian, there is an old proverb: “Amad’an, nashist’am, ghuft’am, barkhas’tam'”, meaning “they came, they sat down, they talked and then dispersed”. This effectively means that nothing substantial was achieved by the visit or the talks. The same could be said of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent visit to India, after his two previous trips planned last year were canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
BoJo in India
Diplomacy these days feeds on optics. On that score, BoJo’s visit ticked all the boxes, but was also marred by angry reactions on social media over photos showing him driving a JCB bulldozer. Perhaps his advisers were unable to make the connection between the lingering controversy over bulldozers used by the establishment against minorities across India, or his close ties to JCB owner Anthony Bamford. , a former donor and supporter of the Conservative Party, have weighed on local sensibilities.
The leg of his visit to Gujarat, a carbon copy of his Home Minister Priti Patel’s trip to the state in 2015, was essentially aimed at garnering the support of the Gujarati electorate back home, keeping an eye on his uncertain political future.
In Gujarat, he also met Gautam Adani at his company headquarters. BoJo described the feeling of being in Ahmedabad similar to that of Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan, two Indian icons used to boost his own public image and try to resonate or connect with Indian audiences.
In New Delhi, he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi “khaas dost” and continuously Narendra during his speech at Hyderabad House. But no more ‘khaas’ treatment of Indian demands for a relaxed visa regime and post-study work for Indian students, an indication of which had been given in Ahmedabad, but which was ultimately not granted.
His main focus remained the FTA between the two countries, as he expected to bring home something substantial in economic terms, especially after his failed Brexit strategy. He urged negotiators on both sides to speed up the pace of negotiations in order to have a final document ready for signing by Diwali in October. Undoubtedly a too ambitious request for agreement, in negotiation for more than ten years.
Although the Indian side has stated that it will show the same speed and urgency as it did in concluding recent FTAs with the United Arab Emirates and Australia in recent months, nothing can be said with certainty on an Indo-British FTA, as there are many thorny issues on both sides.
Britain’s trade with India, the world’s second most populous country with nearly 1.3 billion people, was worth 23 billion pounds ($29.93 billion) in 2019, far less than the Kingdom’s trade United with some much smaller economies like Ireland and India’s trade with smaller countries. such as Belgium which amounts to 18 billion pounds.
Also, although not expressed openly by the British side and neither by BoJo, the Russian-Ukrainian war cast an ominous shadow over the visit. Although his foreign secretary had been told very strongly by New Delhi just 22 days before his visit that India would not change its position on its relations with Russia, BoJo thought he could convince New Delhi to do so.
However, predicting the Indian response, he had set the tone for this even as before meeting Modi he had said he understood India’s historical ties to Russia but chose to lecture anyway. to New Delhi over its relations with “autocratic” states, although this time too New Delhi politely stood its ground.
The way the visit was perceived by both parties was notable for the way the two prime ministers delivered their speeches at Hyderabad House. While BoJo avoided mentioning Russia, Modi reaffirmed Russian ties.
Although the British side refers to a multitude of agreements signed in different sectors and BoJo’s statements on the establishment of a counter-terrorism task force and against Indian economic fugitives currently at home in the UK, everyone is certain that these are only words, nothing of substance. His announcement of billion pound trade deals and the creation of 11,000 jobs is nothing but peanuts for India.
The two sides also agreed to deepen bilateral defense and security cooperation. India welcomed Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt and membership in the Indo-Pacific Economic Initiative; for its part, Britain announced the decision to facilitate the transfer of defense equipment and technology to India and also to develop an advanced jet fighter. But overall, nothing concrete has been signed by either side and the technology transfer could be seen as a mere gimmick to wean India off Russia.
Overall, both sides have shown their commitment to joint research, development and production of advanced weapons and related technologies. The two prime ministers also issued a statement on strengthening partnership in the field of cybersecurity and plan to strengthen cooperation on mitigating climate change and promoting clean energy. But these agreements should be seen as part of a normal bureaucratic visit.
The visit appears to be a hastily stitched plan, with no long-term goals and no narrative framework, and could accomplish nothing bilaterally. In the end, BoJo couldn’t get anything substantial out of India, and his political problems at home linger. The next few days will show how he will be able to handle them and survive, as even his closest Asian-born lieutenants, like Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, who were to succeed him, face politically damaging controversies themselves.
(Asad Mirza is a New Delhi-based political commentator. Opinions expressed are personal)