Could Modi-Johnson meet improve unsteady Indo-Brit ties?

The two nations have a deep historical connection. But both have found it hard to move on from entrenched prejudices of the past.



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As Delhi and London break the corona jinx on the long-scheduled summit between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson with a digital conversation scheduled for Tuesday, cooperation on taming the pandemic is inevitably at the top of the agenda. Like India today, Britain had gone through a horrendous COVID crisis some months ago; and there is much for the two leaders to talk about.

Beyond the immediate relief supplies of oxygen and other medical equipment needed to treat COVID victims, India and the UK must tap into the enormous potential for bilateral strategic cooperation in the health sector and contributions to the global war on the virus.

The issue of resilient medical supply chains is expected to figure not only in the bilateral conversation between Modi and Johnson, but also at the Group of Seven ministerial meeting in London this week. Foreign ministers of India, Japan and Australia would also join this meeting to set the stage for the “Group of Seven Plus Three” physical summit next month hosted by the British Prime Minister.

The possibilities range from ramping up vaccine production to the structuring of a strong public health system in India, the absence of which has been so terribly felt in the last few weeks. The current pandemic is neither the first nor will it be the last.

Even as it overcomes the current COVID wave, Delhi must seize the opportunities to work with its international partners in overcoming India’s failings that have been so mercilessly exposed in the last few weeks. Britain and the G-7 are well-positioned to help transform India’s internal capabilities as well as benefit from them in the management of future global pandemics.

While the health sector will necessarily dominate the conversation between Modi and Johnson on Tuesday, there is other bilateral business that has been pending for too long. Few Western powers are as deeply connected to India as Britain. Yet, building a sustainable partnership with Britain has been rather hard. While India’s relations with countries as different as the US and France have dramatically improved in recent years, ties with Britain have lagged.

One reason for this failure has been the colonial prism that has distorted mutual perceptions. If the anti-colonial resentment against Britain is always seething barely below the surface among the Indian political and bureaucratic classes, London has found it difficult to shed its own prejudices about India.

The bitter legacies of the Partition and Britain’s perceived tilt to Pakistan have long complicated the engagement between Delhi and London. To make matters worse, the large South Asian diaspora in the UK transmits the internal and intra-regional conflicts in the subcontinent into Britain’s domestic politics.

While there is no way of fully separating South Asian and British domestic politics, Delhi’s problems have been accentuated by the British Labour Party’s growing political negativity towards India. For generations, Indian elites grew up thinking Labour was more empathetic towards India, while resenting the Conservative condescension.

The last three decades have seen an important turnaround. The Tories have become natural partners for Delhi, while Labour has become more meddlesome in India’s domestic politics. Here is a paradox: The Labour Party and its intelligentsia that never miss a chance to denounce the empire can’t seem to resist talking down to India. The Tories, who are certainly sentimental about the Raj era, are more open to seeing India in its own right. They are also more willing to view India through the prism of shared interests.

A quarter-century ago, the Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, travelled with Queen Elizabeth to the subcontinent to mark the 50th anniversary of Independence in 1997. Speaking in the name of a values-based foreign policy, Cook held forth on self-determination for Kashmiris.

The soft-spoken Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who heard about Cook’s remarks on Kashmir when he was on an official visit to Cairo, reacted by dismissing Britain as a “third rate power”. Gujral also accused Britain of creating the Kashmir problem in the first place and slammed its temerity to tell India how to solve it. Both sides quickly got into damage limitation, but the Queen’s visit, meant to signal goodwill, ended up doing the opposite.

Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown certainly sought to make amends, but the party drifted steadily away from India. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party had become rather hostile on India’s internal matters, including on Kashmir. More recently the Labour Party was quick to jump into controversy over the farmers’ agitation.

In contrast, the Conservatives have been warming up to India. Tory Prime Minister John Major was quick to support India’s economic reforms in the 1990s. David Cameron, who wrested power from Labour in 2010, sought to revive the relationship with India. His successor, Theresa May, too was eager to advance bilateral ties but Delhi and London continued to struggle in translating the new goodwill into strategic outcomes.

What is new in the relationship is the strong political will on the part of Modi and Johnson to find a fresh basis for the bilateral relationship. The two leaders are expected to announce a 10-year roadmap to transform the bilateral relationship that will cover a range of areas.

Both Modi and Johnson confront a whole new set of circumstances for their countries and recognise that India and Britain need each other to achieve their larger goals. On trade, for example, both are on the rebound from their respective regional blocs. Britain has walked out of the European Union and India has refused to join the China-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although both will continue to trade with their regional partners, they are eager to build new global economic partnerships.

While remaining a security actor in Europe, Britain is tilting to the Indo-Pacific, where India is a natural ally. Delhi, which is looking at a neighbourhood that has been transformed by the rise of China, needs as wide a coalition as possible to restore a semblance of regional balance. Britain could also contribute to the strengthening of India’s domestic defence industrial base. The two sides could also expand Delhi’s regional reach through sharing of logistical facilities.

Delhi and London are said to be exploring an agreement on “migration and mobility” to facilitate the legal movement of Indians into Britain. Both sides are committed to finding common ground on climate change. As they deepen their bilateral partnership and expand regional and international cooperation, Delhi and London may find it easier to manage the irritations over Pakistan and South Asian diaspora politics in Britain. If Modi and Johnson succeed in laying down mutually beneficial terms of endearment, future Labour governments might be less tempted to undermine the partnership.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2021 under the title ‘Delhi to London, a reconnection’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

 

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