A “lack of trust” permeates the bilateral relationship between India and Britain, Britain’s former High Commissioner to India, Sir Richard Stagg, said this week, raising questions about the ability of the two countries to forge a closer relationship in the wake of Brexit.

When it comes to India, the British government “doesn’t have a strategy,” said Sir Richard Stagg, who was High Commissioner in New Delhi between 2007 and 2011, adding that rather than adopting a joined-up approach, “random interventions” were made by individuals within the British government that were “inevitably ineffective.”

Shifting priorities

Pointing to India’s concern around Britain’s relationship with Pakistan, the recent efforts of the Indian government to extradite high net-worth individuals such as Vijay Mallya (and reports that Nirav Modi may have sought asylum in Britain), and the row over student visas, Sir Richard warned that the UK government had to “internalise” the reality of India’s shifting priorities, and recognise the areas where it sought cooperation, if it wanted to further the relationship.

“The UK government is also very distracted by other issues ... the disjoint makes it very difficult to get the relationship working on shared interests and trust,” he said at an event in Parliament on post-Brexit bilateral ties.

Among the key obstacles, he said was the perception in India that Britain was “too supportive” of Pakistan, and concerns about the impact of Britain’s visa regime.

He also pointed to the growing perception in Indian government circles that the British were “not doing enough ... to facilitate” the return of high net-worth “Bollygarchs” who had sought refuge in UK, though he added there was little the British government could do as most cases were within the judicial system.

Sir Richard, who had spent four-and-a-half years working on the EU-India Free Trade Agreement as High Commissioner, also raised questions about Britain’s ability to forge a trade agreement with India. “The country that was most difficult with the issues was the UK,” he said of the EU-India FTA negotiations, pointing to British demands on opening-up of financial and legal services in India, and its opposition to India’s visa and mobility demands as part of any agreement. These issues had been “less important” to other European countries, he said.

“We need to be calm, patient and realistic and try and find some genuine shared interests for developing a more mature and successful relationship. That does take time and acceptance.” He pointed to a number of routes by which Britain could further its relationship with India: security and defence cooperation, joint military exercises, and working with India to achieve reform at bodies such as the UN and WTO.

Rising tensions

Sir Richard’s comments come at a time when tensions between the two nations have heightened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the UK. In a dig at British authorities, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that Modi had told Prime Minister Theresa May that British courts oughtn’t to lecture India on prison conditions. India also pulled out of signing an MoU on the return of illegal migrants because of the 15-day period stipulated in the agreement for documents to be verified, which India viewed as unrealistic.

Britain’s Trade Secretary Liam Fox then linked the decision not to include Indian students in a relaxation of visa requirements to the non-signing of the MoU and the issue of Indians overstaying their visa.

While India acknowledges that there are overstayers, it has contested the scale of the problem. “I am sure there are many [overstayers] but where did this figure of 100,000 come from?,” asked Indian High Commissioner YK Sinha last month.