Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrived on 6 November on a three-day trip to India. This is her first visit to a non-EU country, signaling the importance of New Delhi in a post-Brexit world.
Both New Delhi and London are hoping to make the best of the new situation and unlock the potentials of the relationship to their advantage, especially in trade and investment. Theresa May’s tough anti-immigration stand and the announcement of new visa rules for non-EU nationals coming to the UK last week, has raised concerns in Delhi, as this adversely affects many Indians.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the British visitor are both keen to expand business ties. While India is hoping to gain from Britain leaving the EU, May is looking to swap business deals with India, where the economy is doing better than in rest of the world.
"Prime Minister May’s visit is basically to explore trade relations and convince skeptical Indian business leaders that the UK, after Brexit, still remains a great investment destination," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. "However, India-British trade has never been high, despite the claims political leaders make. The figures have hovered at 15 to 20 billion British pounds annually. Despite efforts, it has remained in this zone for decades. In contrast, India-US trade has gone up from around $20 billion to over $100 billion now. I don’t see much prospect of this changing," Mansingh added.
During talks between the two leaders, India flagged the issue of immigration. May's efforts were to give some relief to the businessmen seeking visas by offering registered traveller scheme for Indian business magnets, which will expedite clearance while visiting the UK. The Indian government will also be able to nominate business executives to the Great Club, a visa and immigration service. Both these schemes will help Indian business leaders, and not the ordinary students. May, keeping an eye on her domestic constituency, selectively gave preferential treatment to travellers who will benefit Britain, while not budging on student visas.
"We have established a strategic dialogue on home affairs covering visas, returns and organised crime. As part of this, UK will consider further improvement to our visa offerings. At the same time, we will speed up return of Indians who have no right to remain in the UK,'' the British PM said at a joint press briefing with Modi.
"This is international procedure, but we will also have to go through our own checklist and make sure that only genuine Indians are admitted back," MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup explained at the briefing. His take was that it was a two-way process. But the two sides seemed bent on pushing the visa issue for students under the carpet, saying in the joint statement: They "welcomed these changes, which will mean that India will have one of the best UK visa services of any country in the world, with more application points than anywhere else and the only place where you can get a same day visa, reflecting the UK government's commitment to continuing to attract inward investment and business from India."
Earlier, Swarup had admitted that the visa problems had led to Indian students giving UK a miss. Last year, the number of Indian students enrolling in UK universities went down by almost 50 percent, from around 40,000 to around 20,000 now. "This has happened because of restrictions on post-study stay in the UK.”
Convincing May on immigration is apparently not easy. As the Home Secretary in the Cameron Cabinet, she was keen to reduce immigration below the 100,000 mark but was not successful. Now as Prime Minister, with Britain opting out of the EU, May is in a better position to enforce her will.
Her tough immigration stand has not endeared her to the British Indian population of the country — the same Indians who welcomed Modi like a rock star at the Wembley Stadium. Many Indians believed that Brexit would result in forging a deeper and wider relationship with India, but the expectations from May has gone down because of her immigration policy.
May, once a supporter of UK staying within the EU, has dramatically changed her views since taking over the mantle from David Cameron. She has become an enthusiastic supporter of Brexit and is now being seen as a tough leader, someone who has shown glimpses of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Iron Lady, who pushed down tough reforms on the country, cutting back on freebies but also helping launching the country into prosperity. Whether May will succeed is open to question but she appears a decisive leader ready to take the bull by the horn. Chances of her softening her views on immigration appear dim.
May, however, is tough also on terror. She condemned the Uri attack and spoke against cross border terrorism. The joint statement said:
"The two Prime Ministers affirmed that the fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and bring to justice terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against all those who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists or efforts to make a distinction between good and bad terrorists."