India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France, Germany and Canada in early April this year in his first official trip to Europe. Rafale fighter jets, increasing manufacturing through the Make in India campaign, urging the EU to move forward on the stalled FTA, and attracting trade and investment featured on the agenda.
While PM Modi has stated that he “usually tries to visit two to four nations together” in convenient clusters, the UK that has been desperately courting India was missing on his travel agenda. While Britain erects a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at London’s Parliament Square in a desperate attempt to entice India, amid all the hysteria in India involving Modi’s visits to relevant countries and vice versa, Britain has been greatly sidelined.
In 2014, five prominent UK politicians made official visits to India from Foreign Secretary William Hague to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Deputy PM Nick Clegg. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron himself has visited India three times since assuming office in 2010, including twice in 2013, professing that India is Britain’s “partner of choice” and “relations with India are at the top of the UK’s foreign policy priorities”. Despite its earlier shunning of Mr Modi on account of his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Britain in 2012 was one of the earliest countries to revoke its ban on Mr Modi – something that the US only withdrew in 2014. In addition, Britain has steadily supported India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Yet, the traffic has been one way, and interestingly, no Indian prime minister has visited the UK since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001, barring Manmohan Singh’s attendance at the 2009 G-20 Summit in UK.
Since Mr Modi became the prime minister, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have visited London, although their visits have been centred around India-specific events.
While British officials have in recent years been on a Visit India spree, with the UK increasingly moving away from the limited colonial outlook that exemplified its view of India in earlier decades, India has not responded with reciprocal enthusiasm.
Despite a deep historical legacy, cultural bonds bridging centuries, a prominent Indian diaspora numbering 2 million, strong educational linkages, $15.8 billion trade in favor of India, and a strong economic relationship with major investments on both sides, Britain is amongst a host of nations, hoping to capitalise on India’s flourishing economy and the opening of its burgeoning defence industry to foreign investment through which it can possibly carve a role for itself in Asia and feature conspicuously in the region. As an article by the Economist states, “Today everyone wants to be best pals with India”.
Besides, there is potent competition from the exporting states of Japan, France and Germany that have created a niche in India. The UK’s attempts to tap into India’s budding defence industry have been impeded by India’s diversification of defence sources, including its widespread military links with France exacerbated by its refusal to condemn India’s 1998 nuclear tests, and the UK’s failure to secure the sale of its Eurofighter Typhoon jets with India choosing to go for the lower cost French Dassault Rafaele jets instead rendering France India’s largest European defense partner. (The UK’s offer of its Eurofighter jets to India has been recently renewed by PM Cameron in a claim that his deal is better). German industrial expertise can contribute to India’s development and infrastructure projects including rail networks and smart cities as reiterated by Steinruecke of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce. Japanese technology, investments and aid in India’s infrastructure projects including the construction of smart cities, Delhi’s mass rapid transit system and the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, plans to further defense and security cooperation, and not least to counter Chinese aggression; in return for rejuvenation of its bedridden economy through exports and investments to a rapidly flourishing India, have paved the way for a promising partnership.
Despite PM Cameron’s latest assertion that Britain is a better partner for PM Modi’s Make in India campaign, unlike these relatively more resourceful countries, the UK does not have anything exclusive to offer India. India can certainly benefit from Britain’s impressive historic expertise and knowhow in technology and innovation. Additionally, a large number of British firms operate in India, including Vodafone, Unilever, Diageo, British American Tobacco; Indian firms prefer Britain for FDI, and British banks lend more to India than any other country. But while countries like Japan and Germany have been eager to invest in India’s growing economy and the large number of infrastructure projects, the UK has been reluctant to do so, including plans to invest in India’s ambitious 1,00 km Mumbai-Bangalore
corridor. Strategic cooperation between India and Britain is being strengthened especially in the realms of counter-terrorism and civil nuclear cooperation. However, concurrently, the UK has pressed for a bigger role for Pakistan in Afghanistan, continuing its historic pro-Pakistan incline – something that naturally does not go down well with India.
India’s foreign policy focus has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, and even within Europe, Britain has been consigned to the backburner. Though the relationship between the two countries will likely continue to be affable and mutually constructive and substantial economic, strategic and military gains will be achieved for both sides, Britain will not be India’s only reciprocal “partner of choice” as Cameron wishes, and it is far-fetched to develop into a “special relationship”.
Far from writer Patrick French’s critique of Britain’s narrow minded colonial mindset and its subsequent incapability to fathom how India is growing, Britain’s recent attitude exhibits a pragmatic necessity and appreciation of engaging with a rising India. India’s reactions are also characterized by pragmatic reflections including an acknowledgement of Britain’s fading international clout. In the transactional and ephemeral world of international Relations, historical links and shared values matter, but eventually the future of the relationship will depend on India’s evaluation of what it achieves from it. This will determine where Britain stands on India’s radar and how much political weight India is willing to invest to deepen the level of engagement.
Overall, the Indo-British entente reiterates altering geopolitical truths including a significant shift in the global balance of power, a multipolar world comprising India’s place as an emerging power, and a Great Britain that is no longer as Great.
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