India no longer sees the UK as a Global Power to solve regional problems
LIKE elsewhere in the world, the shock outcome of the UK elections last week was front page news in India’s English dailies. Even so, there was little interest in what the election result could mean for India-UK relations.
Truth be told, the post-Brexit UK does not have the same standing for the government of India and the Indian strategic affairs establishment as do the US, EU, Russia, Japan and even Australia. This may seem surprising given the traditionally close economic and social relations between India and the UK that go back centuries. The UK is still home to a large proportion of the Indian diaspora. Indian companies remain invested in the UK – and UK firms in India. For the wealthy Indian tourist, the UK remains one of the first countries to visit. But Indian foreign policy interest is now directed almost entirely at how to counter China and its rising influence in the world. With India’s half century-old border dispute with China far from resolved, New Delhi lives in an uneasy accommodation with Beijing.
Hence the decade-long shift to closer relations with the US, a similar cultivation of Japan and Australia (with both of whom India has conducted military exercises in the Indian Ocean). The UK lacks the necessary economic or political clout to play a relevant part in India’s China strategy. But the European Union does. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has visited Germany twice in the past two years, a reflection of the importance India now gives to cultivating the power-centre of the EU.
The UK has tried to do its bit to carve itself a new role in the post-Brexit situation. India was the first country outside Europe that Theresa May visited as Prime Minister in November 2016. A leading newspaper labelled it an “an underwhelming visit”. Nothing of importance was discussed or decided, with most of India’s attention being focused on the increasingly tight UK visa rules for work permits for India’s IT personnel, students – and tourists. This tightening has seen Indian student numbers to the UK drop by 50 per cent. Australia has long overtaken the UK as the second most preferred destination; the US is the first. In trade, the UK remains an important market for Indian goods, but the country is no longer a major source of imports. India buys more from Belgium than from the UK. Last year the UK ranked only 15th in the value of two-way trade between India and the rest of the world.
This explains the fading of interest in the unexpected UK election results. People to people connections remain as strong as ever, but the weakening of Indo-UK trade and the China-centric stance of the right-wing government now in power in New Delhi means that the UK is not a focus for India’s foreign policy. It is not surprising then that there is even less interest in the bad showing of the SNP in the parliamentary elections. The strong wins of the Tories in Scotland have been noted in the media, as contributing to Theresa May’s ability to cobble together a government. But beyond that the Indian strategic affairs establishment has no view on Scotland.
This is quite a change from 2014 when the referendum in Scotland held great interest, if only because India, battling a secessionist movement in Kashmir, wondered how the UK could contemplate the possibility of a separation. The former colony seems to no longer need the former coloniser. These are not new developments and they will now strengthen after Brexit.
The author is a former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai. This article is co-published with the Scottish Centre on European Relations.