Elections bring India-UK bilateral relations in sharp focus

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 07, 2017

While Britain’s general election has been far and away the most ideologically charged and dramatic in terms of poll shifts in recent years, it is also one that could significantly impact bilateral relations between India and Britain.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past been a sharp critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, signing a parliamentary Early Day Motion expressing concerns about various humanitarian issues in India, when Modi visited Britain in November 2015. Since then, however, he’s sought to signal his support for a stronger bilateral relationship, telling The Hindu last year that the Conservative government had failed to treat India with “respect” regarding it as a place merely to do business.

Immigration reforms

Labour would tackle “unfair” rules that made it harder for family members from outside the EU to come to Britain, and bring in other reforms to the immigration system. It’s a promise they’ve expanded on in the Labour manifesto, which proposes changes to issues that have been major sore points in bilateral relations: by taking foreign students out of net migration figures and replacing the current minimum income rule for foreign spouses, with an obligation to manage “without recourse to public funds.”

The Conservatives, by contrast, have proposed raising the skill levy on non-EU workers to £2,000 a year, as well as the earning threshold for people who wish to bring in non-EU spouses.

“Within the Conservatives there is a genuine desire for better relations,” says Gareth Price, the India expert at Chatham House, pointing to the large number of ministerial visits from both sides. “At the same time, one of the biggest issues that India has asked for movement on — immigration — the answer has been consistently no.”

The Conservative manifesto pledges to strengthen ties with “Commonwealth allies,” and build on existing economic and trading relationships as a “global champion of free trade.”

A number of India-related issues have also appeared in the Labour manifesto: the party has pledged to hold a further inquiry into British involvement in operation Blue Star, and makes a direct mention of Kashmir, urging negotiations towards political resolution in the region, alongside other conflict zones. The statement is a neutral one, and follows in a similar vein to that of the Conservative government, which has taken the stance that a solution in Kashmir is up to India and Pakistan “taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”

Human rights

“Human rights will inevitably be mentioned more under a Corbyn-led government than under the Conservatives, though there is a recognition that “lecturing” India has failed to achieve results, and offers to assist India in areas such as policing are more effective,” says Price, who believes the Labour approach is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of former Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who in 197 created a political storm by offering to mediate.

Labour has also sought to focus on comments by May in Philadelphia earlier this year when she pointed to the rise of China and India, and fears of the eclipse of the West. “So we — our two countries together — have a responsibility to lead,” she said at the time of Britain and the US.

“I do not see India and China in those terms,” Corbyn said at a major foreign policy speech at Chatham House earlier this year, adding that a Labour government would work with all permanent Security Council members as well as others — India, South Africa, Brazil and Germany.

However, the biggest potential determinant of bilateral relations is likely to be Britain’s future relationship with the EU, on which the parties have distinctly different views. While the Conservatives would leave the single market and customs union, Labour have said they would put a strong emphasis on “retaining the benefits” of both. How this plays out in the bilateral relationship with India will have to be seen.

Brexit, EU issues

On the one hand a hard Brexit, and a clean break from the EU would make trade relations with India and other fast growing countries more important for Britain, but it could also reduce India’s interest in closer ties with Britain, since it would no longer be the “Gateway to Europe,” says Price, noting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Europe.

During the visit Modi reiterated India’s commitment to working towards the stalled free trade agreement with the EU.

While there may be differences between the parties, India is confident its relations will endure. “We have worked with Labour governments in the past and we’ve worked with the Conservatives and have always had good relations with both,” said Dinesh Patnaik, Deputy High Commissioner for India in the UK. “Whoever comes to power cannot do without us.”

Published on June 07, 2017
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