It was only a few days ago that the world was looking at the UK in absolute bewilderment. And understandably so. A country known and respected for stability and prudence plunged itself into the most unprecedented political and economic crisis. From the maverick reign of Boris Johnson to the kamikaze economics of Liz Truss, Brand Britain has certainly taken a bashing like never before.
So now that Rishi Sunak has stepped in, there is already something palpably different and reassuring in the sober, business-like tone that he has set. In his maiden speech on the threshold of the famous 10 Downing Street door, Sunak said his government would be one of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. Dare I say it, how very British.
With sky rocketing inflation, governance drift, deep and growing pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) and other public services, and a war in Europe that could at any point tip into catastrophe, Sunak’s inbox is by far the most challenging and complex that any British Prime Minister has inherited in recent history. He will have to hit the ground running, make big and painful decisions, and dig deep into his impressive powers of persuasion to carry the country and, of late, his rather unruly party with him. Anything less will mean political oblivion for the Conservative Party and further derision of Brand Britain.
However, one area of almost universal political consensus in both the UK and India is that the relationship whilst warm has been under-performing in many respects. Hence the imperative to more closely align strategic and economic interests. This imperative for the UK was set out in the seminal ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, launched in March last year, which stated in no uncertain terms that: “The UK-India relationship is already strong, but over the next 10 years we seek transformation in our cooperation across the full range of our shared interests”. Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson subsequently agreed earlier this year to a highly detailed ‘2030 Roadmap for India-UK Future Relations’, a vision to revitalise and reenergise trade, investment and people to people ties.
It’s also been reassuring of late that the UK’s Opposition Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer, enjoying a 30-point lead in the opinion polls, are now going out of their way to positively ”reset” relations with India – having displayed shocking levels of institutionalised hostility towards India in the recent past.
We have had some insight of how Sunak would reimagine relations, when he spoke as Chancellor of the Exchequer at India Global Forum’s UK-India Awards in July this year. He set out, in what was his last major speech before he dramatically resigned from Johnson’s government, three core areas of focus: immigration, trade and investment and innovation.
On the contentious issue of immigration, he was unequivocal: “For the UK, high talent immigration is absolutely core to how we view ourselves as a country, especially in a post-Brexit world.”
Sunak went on to link the flow of talent both ways with the flow of capital and innovation. “The flow of savings from the West to attractive investment opportunities in fast growing India will be one of the defining movements of capital in our working lives. And the UK, given our strengths in financial services, can play an important role in making this happen.”
He noted: “I sometimes think that our (UK) perception of India simply hasn’t caught up with reality. I believe that science and technology can become the core of our relationship. UK and Indian expertise, working together to spread innovation in a partnership of equals.”
In addition, areas such as defence and security, professional services, and even giving impetus to a reimagined Commonwealth could I am sure be high on the agenda going forward.
Sunak’s vision echoes Prime Minister Modi’s to build a “modern partnership”, as he stated in his congratulatory tweet to Sunak.
However, to risk stating the obvious, we must not allow our judgment to be clouded about Sunak. Just as Modi has demonstrated the most razor-sharp focus on India’s economic and social development, Sunak is a British Prime Minister whose primary and only duty is to the British people. We cannot and must not allow the bewilderment towards the UK of the recent past to be replaced simply by euphoria that a person of Indian origin occupies the highest office in the UK. This would be utterly naive, complacent, and short-lived.
The stalled free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations – caused in part by the ill-judged comments of Home Secretary Suella Braverman – triggered an immediate and sharp reaction from New Delhi. To class Indians as the largest group of visa overstayers without putting it in the context of the very small percentage that represents as opposed to the legal skilled migration was unhelpful.
But I believe where we can expect a qualitative difference in engagement is through the relatively better understanding and empathy that Sunak will have for India and its economic and geo-political realities. This could well be the magic sauce that brings about a Quantum Leap in what has been a warm but under-performing relationship in recent years.
But let’s not expect miracles overnight – Sunak’s inbox is rather full already.
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