Narendra Modi in UK: Beyond hard bargaining, Brexit a great chance for India to fruitfully engage with Britain

Boris Johnson was at the Heathrow to receive Narendra Modi on Tuesday night. Both leaders apparently held a "midnight meeting" right at the airport, and the UK foreign secretary told the media how "excited" he was about growing India-UK bilateral trade and how the Indian prime minister's visit will help build on "huge economic advantages". One could verily imagine Johnson playing the part of a delighted host, maybe even with a touch of exaggeration.

Theresa May's government is evidently keen to keep the Prime Minister of India in good humour. It has gone out of its way to roll out the red carpet. Reports claim that a chauffeur-driven limo will be at Modi's service at the venue for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) while other 52 heads of state must adjust in a coach. Modi is also holding a private meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace — one among only three visiting leaders to do so.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Beneath the flashlights, rhetoric, exaggerated handshakes, smiles and red-carpet welcome, Modi's series of bilateral meetings will be defined by some tough bargaining.

The prime minister met his British counterpart for breakfast early on Wednesday and is scheduled to meet her again later in the day at an event hosted by May at the Francis Crick Institute. Modi has met Prince Charles and will call on the Queen later in a day of packed engagements.

UK may have gone out of its way to ensure Modi's presence at the CHOGM — because it helps somewhat to counter charges of Britain's isolationism post-Brexit — but Modi may find that courtesy to be in short supply as he sits across the table. It isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The India-UK relationship has been drifting away into a region of neglect to the extent that French president Emmanuel Macron recently called upon Indian students to make France the gateway to Europe during a recent visit to New Delhi, prompting an immediate riposte from Johnson.


The exchange is a microcosm of the state of India-UK bilateral ties that have fallen into a state of disrepair. While Macron wants to double the presence of Indian students in France, Britain, which has historically been the favourite destination for Indian professionals and students, has been tightening norms for studying and post-study work visa to the extent that data from UK Council for International Student Affairs in December 2017 shows a 44 percent decline in number of Indian students in Britain in the last five years.

"According to the latest figures from the Home Office, in 2017 there were around 16,000 Indian students studying in the UK; compare that with Canada where there were 1,00,000 Indian students in the same period," Karan Bilimoria, member of UK's House of Lords and a strong opponent of Brexit, was quoted as saying in a report in Economic Times.

This presents a particularly tricky problem for Britain. On the one hand it covets a greater access to Indian market —world's fastest-growing large economy with a burgeoning middle-class population, and on the other hand it is politically impossible for a Conservative government in post-Brexit Britain to give India what it wants — a liberalised visa regime that makes it easier for Indian students and professionals to access the education and labour market.

As Arun K Singh, India's former ambassador to the US and France writes in The Print, "India would not be interested in any agreement that does not have provision for trade related migration of skilled labour. This is difficult for the UK, since Brexit was sparked also by reaction to intra-EU migration."

The visa regime has become bit of a stumbling block in closer trade and economic ties. May perceives that she is not in a position to offer "better" visa norms except some allowances in the technology sector but it likely won't go far enough to persuade India to sign a free-trade deal with the UK. It would be politically suicidal for any Indian leader to open its market to a country which isn't interested in a reciprocal gesture in movement of people and easier immigration policy. Trade has remained hostage to this political challenge.

As Financial Times points out in a report, total bilateral trade was up by 15 percent last year but at £18 billion, the countries still traded less last year than they did in 2011, when the figure stood at £19.4 billion. Geethanjali Nataraj, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, told the London-based daily that "trade has not really picked up in several years… Britain is keen to sign a free-trade agreement eventually, but to do that it will have to offer easier visas."

The test of leadership is in finding ways where apparently none exists. While an immediate quid-pro-quo appears unlikely, there are allowances both nations may make to inch towards a mutually acceptable outcome. For instance, illegal immigration reportedly formed a major part of Modi's discussion with May during the breakfast meeting. UK has been pestering India over the return of what it calls "illegal immigrants" whose numbers are said to run into thousands. During her visit to India in 2016, the British prime minister had hinted at a deal where if India promises to take back the "illegal immigrants", a more relaxed visa regime for Indians might follow.

It now appears that the wheels have been set in motion. Reports indicate that an MoU on the return of illegal immigrants, which had expired in 2014, is likely to be renewed "to take into account biometric and other developments in the field, along with a range of nearly a dozen MoUs across different sectors."

On the other hand, extradition of Indian economic offenders who have sought refuge in Britain — a politically sensitive topic in India — has been picked up during Modi's first bilateral with May. According to reports, Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi both featured in the discussion among the two leaders. The move assumes significance in light of the ongoing election season in India and comes after a month of the NDA government introducing Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill 2018 in the Parliament.

Despite a shared history and strong people-to-people ties, if ties between two nations haven't kept up with the passage of time, it could be largely put down to different priorities of the two nations. Brexit, however, has thrown up as many opportunities as challenges. An embattled government in Britain is keen to show that Britain could be a gainer through bilateral deals and FTA. India would like to assume a greater role in the Commonwealth both as a tool to achieve its 'great power' objective and as a multilateral forum that has no Chinese presence. In both cases, Britain can play a key role to further India's interests. In the end, it is about furthering own interests while finding common areas of profit.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 21:57:39 IST

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