On Wednesday, Britain appointed its first Indian-origin home secretary in the form of Priti Patel, the Conservative MP representing Witham in Essex. The 47-year-old served as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury in 2014, Minister of State for Employment from 2015 to 2016, when she was promoted to the office of Secretary of State for International Development. The daughter of Indian expats — who moved to the UK from Uganda, Patel now holds a portfolio that gives her charge of matters pertaining to internal security, law and order, immigration, counter-terrorism and narcotics.
Alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson's frequently articulated desire to improve trade relations with India, a glance at the newly-appointed home secretary's track record on India-UK relations will come as a source of encouragement for New Delhi. To that effect, India's external affairs minister S Jaishankar tweeted his congratulations to his 'good friend' Patel and wished her a successful tenure.
PTI quoted Patel expressing her wish for Britain to 're-establish our ties with our friends and allies around the world such as India'. She went on to add, "[Johnson] is committed to securing new and improved trading relationship with our friends in India and ensuring that the values we share the rule of law, democracy, and dynamic entrepreneurial spirit should be at the heart of one of our most important partners on the global stage."
The home secretary, along with 10 other MPs , is a member of the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC). What could constitute another slice of optimism for Indians is the fact that the committee in June this year published a report titled 'Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India', in which the FAC called on the "foreign secretary to visit India as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of 2019".
Noting that "while India is among the top four investors in the UK, and the third largest creator of jobs, trade is lagging behind its potential", the focus of the report is largely on boosting trade, investment and movement of people. That said, cooperation in the fields of security, defence and global governance is also discussed over the next few sections of the report.
The key takeaway from the document is the bold mission statement laid out at the start that states, "Government cannot afford to be complacent or rely on historical connections to deliver a modern partnership. The UK needs to adjust its strategy to India’s enhanced influence and power: we should do more to respond to India’s priorities, and should communicate our own objectives more clearly. As the UK leaves the EU, our foreign policy priorities will change."
Lastly, what should also boost the hopes of those seeking better India-UK relations is that Patel is a regular attendee of Indian diaspora events in the UK and is reportedly a fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, before she can get down to pushing for any improvement in the bilateral, Patel must first overcome a few road bumps. The first of these are matters of conflict of interest:
No stranger to controversy, it may be recalled that she was asked by former prime minister Theresa May to step down as international development secretary in 2017 after being summoned back from a trip to Uganda and Ethiopia by May. To blame was the Tory MP's failure to disclose to the prime minister that she had held 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businessmen and a senior lobbyist. In her resignation letter, Patel admitted that her actions 'fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state'. Patel remains a member of Conservative Friends of Israel — a British parliamentary group affiliated to the Conservative Party.
It was revealed on Thursday that Patel has a £1,000-an hour contract with Viasat, an American communications firm that supplies products and services to Britain's Ministry of Defence.
The other obstacle Patel will have to overcome is her human rights record, something to which several human rights NGOs have alluded. As The Guardian notes, "She backed the key components of [May's] hostile environment policies, presented in the immigration bills of 2014 and 2016, such as rent, work and bank account checks, all of which led to members of the Windrush generation being wrongfully told they had no lawful right to live and work in the UK." Further, it may also be recalled that she has opposed same-sex marriage and for the longest time (until 2016 or so), advocated Britain reviving the death penalty.
Ultimately, however, noble intentions need to be backed up with action. India will wait and watch to see if Patel can translate the early optimism into genuine reason for cheer.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Jul 26, 2019 20:06:12 IST