Home » C Raja Mohan writes: UK may have a new government — this time Labour could be better for India

C Raja Mohan writes: UK may have a new government — this time Labour could be better for India

C Raja Mohan writes: UK may have a new government — this time Labour could be better for India

As the Tories in Britain head for a historic defeat in tomorrow’s elections, India is well-placed to advance the bilateral relationship under a new Labour government led by Keir Starmer. The Conservative Party may well deserve much of the criticism for its tumultuous 15-year tenure in office. But when it comes to India, there is no doubt that the Tories have presided over a positive reorientation of ties between London and Delhi. Shedding some of Britain’s colonial baggage, the party has unshackled British policy towards India from the Pakistan and Kashmir factors and framed the engagement in the broader Indo-Pacific framework.

They have also negotiated a roadmap for the transformation of bilateral relations across the board, from green transition to defence and from new technologies to maritime security. The Migration and Mobility Agreement helped the two sides grapple with the challenge of illegal immigration and ease the flow of Indian talent into the UK. Not all problems have been resolved. Delhi remains concerned about the impunity that anti-India activity in Britain seems to enjoy. There has been enduring resistance in Britain’s permanent establishment to a fresh relationship. In Delhi, too, the “anti-colonial” posturing on the left and right prevents the establishment from seizing the full range of possibilities with Britain.

Labour’s return to power might reignite some of India’s anxieties about bilateral ties due to the disastrous turn in India-UK relations in the late 1990s when Labour presided over a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to India in 1997. Meant to signal post-colonial reconciliation on the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence, the visit became a lesson in how not to organise major diplomatic events.

In a stopover in Pakistan during the mission’s visit to India, the newly-minted British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, talked about helping mediate on the Kashmir question. Inder Kumar Gujral, the Indian Prime Minister travelling in Egypt at that time, dismissed the offer and called Britain a “third-rate power” wallowing in delusions about its post-imperial weight in the world. The Queen’s visit to Jallianwala Bagh to express regret at the 1919 massacre was to be the sombre centrepiece of the visit. But Prince Philip, the Queen’s Royal Consort, remarked that the Jallianwala Bagh death count may be exaggerated and triggered a massive uproar in India.

Although British PM Tony Blair sought to limit the damage, the squabbling over Pakistan and Kashmir continued to cast a shadow over bilateral relations under Labour’s tenure. Cook’s articulation of an “ethical foreign policy” that had support in the Labour Party, coupled with the promotion of identity politics and pandering to anti-India groups, put the ties between Delhi and London on shaky ground.

Festive offer

David Cameron, who led the Conservatives to victory in 2010, made an early visit to India and signalled the desire to put the past behind. Delhi was not ready for the transformation and it took another decade for the two sides to lay out an ambitious vision for an India-British partnership.

Could the return of Labour open up old wounds? Unlikely. Starmer has put down the anti-India fires lit in the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Manifesto’s references to Kashmir in the 2019 elections triggered a storm in Delhi and mobilised the Hindu community to support the Tories. But Starmer has sought to crush the radical ideologies. There is no longer a free run to anti-India groups. Starmer has signalled the intent to build on the foundations laid by the Tories.

At home, Labour is reaching out to the Hindu vote (as are the Tories). Starmer was at the Swaminarayan Temple in Kingsbury with the promise to protect the interests of British Hindus. But the new Labour can’t ignore other minorities, including the Pakistani diaspora which stands at 1.2 million (the Indian diaspora is at 1.5mn). The UK-based Khalistani groups will continue to lobby the new government to push an anti-India agenda.

For Delhi, there is no escaping the fact that India’s domestic politics and the fractures of the Subcontinent will continue to resonate within the large South Asian diaspora. Like in most democracies, retail politics in the UK involves cultivating vote banks. Delhi, then, has a two-fold task. One is to maintain the pressure to curb anti-India activity in the UK. Delhi must also intensify its engagement with the “deep state” in Britain to lay out sensible protocols to manage the problems arising from the UK’s large and growing South Asian diaspora.

The other is to build on the positive potential that limits the salience of the negative factors. Shedding misperceptions about Britain is equally important. Gujral was wrong when he called Britain a “third-rate power”. In the mid-1990s, Britain’s GDP was higher than China and India put together. Today, India certainly has a slightly bigger economy than Britain (nearly $4 trillion to $3.5 trillion). But India, with a per capita income of less than $3,000 (Britain is at $50,000), has much to gain from a deeper partnership with London.

Delhi should stop underestimating the relative importance of Britain for India. India’s exports to Britain today, at nearly $30 billion, are nearly six times the exports to Russia. Although far behind the US and China, Britain is among the front-ranking middle powers. Its financial clout, technological depth, and global reach make Britain a force multiplier for a rising India. As he nudges Labour towards political moderation, Starmer gives India the opportunity to strengthen ties with Britain.

David Lammy, expected to take over as the next foreign secretary, in a major speech last week laid out an ambitious vision for the relationship with India. Criticising the Tories for over-promising and under-delivering on the India relationship, Lammy says Labour is ready to step on the political accelerator to wrap up the free trade deal and push forward on the technological and defence fronts.

Even more important is the Labour worldview that Lammy is dubbing as “progressive realism”. The emphasis is on “realism”. If Cook and Corbyn elevated the rhetoric on a “values-based foreign policy” that was out of touch with reality, Starmer and Lammy are saying Britain must deal with the world as it is and not how it wishes it to be.

The writer is visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express