Will Boris be the one to build bridges with India?

Will Boris be the one to build bridges with India?

The UK Parliament's influential Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), in its recent 'Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India ties' report, had warned that the UK was falling behind in the global race to engage with India and laid out a roadmap for Britain to address the many missed opportunities in the relationship. With Boris Johnson taking charge in the UK and Narendra Modi back with an overwhelming General Election mandate in India, it is time to nail down at least five key priorities for the new British Prime Minister.

“The sooner we leave the EU and take back control of our trade policy, the sooner we can strike a new trade deal with India that will deliver new jobs, growth and prosperity for both our countries. Securing this new and improved trading relationship with our friends in India will be a priority for me,” declared Boris Johnson in an open letter addressed to the Indian diaspora base of the Conservative Party just days before he was to take charge as the UK's 55th Prime Minister. This pledge was made in the pursuit of crucial votes in the course of a leadership contest that delivered a bruising defeat to former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. Now that the flamboyant politician, known as much for wit and charm as for his mock-bumbling persona, is settling into Downing Street, it remains to be seen if these words will translate into real action.

Rebuilding Bridges

The harsh reality that this important bilateral relationship needs urgent attention was laid bare by the House of Commons' influential Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) in its comprehensive and in-depth 'Rebuilding Bridges: Reawakening UK-India ties' report, released in June 2019 to coincide with the first-ever India Day in the UK Parliament - organised by India Inc.

WPA Pool

The Chair of the Committee, Conservative Party MP Tom Tugendhat, as well as a team of cross-party MPs, including Priti Patel - now in charge of the crucial post of UK Home Secretary in the Johnson Cabinet, trawled through a series of oral and written evidence sessions over the course of nearly a year to come to the conclusion that the UK is falling behind in the global race to engage with India. At the heart of this lay the UK's failure to adjust its strategy to fit India's enhanced influence and power on the world stage. It was a conclusion that many India watchers and experts in the UK were already aware of but the true extent of the damage caused by this complacency within British political circles was exposed as a result of this extremely timely “Global Britain and India Inquiry”.

Tugendhat notes: “As new powers challenge the structure of global trade and dispute resolution, we cannot miss the opportunity to partner with India. Trade, security, a shared commitment to the rules-based international system - these are all factors in our growing and evolving partnership.

“The government needs to make sure the UK is making its support for India clear, reawakening the ties between us and building bridges that are made to last. We need somebody who is able sit down with Prime Minister Modi and build a proper strategic relationship.” If the new British PM is to be taken at his own word, Boris Johnson claims to share a very personal relationship with Prime Minister Modi which he wants to capitalise on to deliver a “truly special UK-India relationship”.

Trade focus

To delve a little beyond just promises, the FAC report provides a pretty elaborate roadmap on how Johnson could go about fixing the gaps in the UK-India relationship and create a partnership that addresses some of the missed opportunities.

“As India has boomed over the last two decades, the UK has fallen behind other countries in its share of India's fast-growing trade with the world. This is an expensive missed opportunity,” warns the report.

“While India is among the top four investors in the UK, and the third largest creator of jobs, trade is lagging behind its potential. While it is true that UK-India trade has 'grown rapidly' in the last two decades, India's global trade has grown three times faster. As a result, the UK has gone from being India's second-biggest trade partner in 1998-99 to 17th in 2018-19,” it points out, under the trade and investment section of its inquiry.

Based on the evidence submitted, the Committee called on the UK government to focus on tools to build the trade relationship, including bilateral forums; sector-specific trade initiatives; the removal of non-tariff barriers; and support for India's pro-business reforms. “Although the government has said that Brexit offers an opportunity to increase ties with India, witnesses said that the UK was not communicating this effectively. Some raised concerns that the UK might in fact become more closed,” it noted.

One easy step that a new UK leader can take to reflect a real focus on improving trade ties with India would be to appoint a dedicated Trade Envoy with the express purpose of seeing a new free trade agreement through. Such a move would undoubtedly send the right message to New Delhi and prompt a quid pro quo in the form of a dedicated Indian Trade Representative for the UK. It may be seen as a symbolic move, but one that would go a long way in addressing the FAC's stark warning that the post-Brexit Global Britain message is not being completely translated in the corridors of power in India.

Defence Cooperation

In this important area, the FAC received evidence highlighting India's wish for a broader strategic relationship with the UK - including closer security and defence cooperation - and concern that the UK is more focused on economic ties.

The Indian Ocean and wider Indo-Pacific is a key arena for this expanded relationship. The UK and India share strong and growing interests in the stability of the region. As a major route for both countries' trade, and site of a joint UK-US defence facility in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), the region is of growing strategic value.

The committee called on the UK to support India's drive for pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean, as a “stable fellow democracy, with which the UK shares most security interests”. However, it would seem the China conundrum has been hindering this very important aspect of the relationship. India is concerned about China's growing influence in the region, including its investments in ports through the Belt and Road (infrastructure) Initiative (BRI). New Delhi has called for connectivity initiatives to maintain standards of transparency, good governance, and respect for sovereignty. It is developing alternative initiatives to meet the region's infrastructure needs, including a joint proposal with Japan for an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, and forging a deeper relationship with neighbours. India has joined Japan, Australia, and the US in a revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, an informal grouping that aims to defend a “free and open Indo-Pacific”-widely seen as a response to growing Chinese influence.

“The UK, by contrast, has engaged substantially with Belt and Road. This risks feeding a perception in India that the UK has prioritised its relationship with China, particularly under the David Cameron government,” the FAC warns. “The government should make greater efforts to engage with Indian ministers, officials and non-governmental opinion leaders on defence, around UK interests in the Indian Ocean. These efforts may be boosted by greater engagement with third partners such as France and Japan, which have established joint initiatives with India in the region,” it adds. An easy answer is greater UK involvement in Indian infrastructure and connectivity initiatives in the Indian Ocean region.

Mobility is key

The ease of mobility, whether it is for professionals between India and the UK or tourists, is another key area where Britain has failed to strike the right note with India so far.

“There are certain practical steps the government must take to reset its relationship with India, in particular making it easier for Indians to visit the UK and to work or study here,” the FAC report categorically stated. On the issue of visas, it expresses concern that India seems to face tougher norms than a non-democratic country like China. It notes: “There is no excuse for the migration policies that have led the UK to lose ground in attracting Indian students and tourists - who not only contribute to our economy but build lasting bilateral ties.

“The FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] should ensure that the goal of improving the overall relationship with India is woven into the broader government migration policy. Something has gone wrong, if it is more difficult for citizens of a strategically important democracy that shares our values, language and history to visit or study in the UK than those of an autocracy such as China.”

While the UK proudly claims to offer Indians more skilled worker visas than any other country, the fact they have to jump through numerous more hoops than say a country like China is certainly not sending out the right message to India - a country it claims to have a special relationship with. Many Indian nationals come to the UK, and nine in every 10 Indian visa applications to the UK are granted. However, skilled workers, students, and tourists find the system “unwelcoming, expensive, and difficult to navigate”.

The UK is losing ground in its share of India's tourists: France is now a more popular holiday destination than the UK for Indian nationals. Witnesses to the Global Britain and Indian inquiry highlighted the cost and time investment of applying for visitor visas, even for Indian nationals who travel frequently to the UK. One forecast predicted that, while Indian tourist numbers would grow 52 per cent worldwide by 2025, the number of Indians holidaying in the UK would rise just 3 per cent.

Students as future ambassadors

The fact that Indian student numbers are finally on the up after the sheer drops of some previous years has been widely welcomed by the UK as a sign of success. However, the fact remains that between 2010-11 and 2016-17, the number of higher education students from India choosing UK universities more than halved.

“The UK has lost ground in its share of India's students and tourists. In 2012, the government cancelled a post-study work visa that had allowed international students to work for two years after graduation,” says the FAC report. “Of the 750,000 Indian students studying abroad in 2018, fewer than 20,000 were in the UK - two-thirds the number in New Zealand,” it says, warning that Indian students who go to the US or Australia do not develop ties with the UK, changing the way the UK will be seen for generations to come.

This reflects an immeasurable loss of a large numbers of natural ambassadors that Britain could be cultivating because it is undisputed that Indians who study in the UK have an instinctive interest in promoting India-UK collaborations.

Dan Kitwood

The damage is increased by a perception that Chinese nationals have easier access to the UK. Under a 2016 pilot scheme, Chinese nationals were given access to a two-year multiple-entry visa that is almost four times cheaper than that for Indian nationals. The UK government's list of “low risk” countries that enjoy relaxed student visa requirements includes China, but excludes India. The former British high commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan, told the parliamentary inquiry that the primary reason for these differences was the perception that Indian nationals were more likely to overstay, whereas the families of Chinese nationals might face “consequences” if the person did not return. This claim is not borne out by the numbers now known via exit checks at the UK border.

The short-term movement of people - for Indian nationals on temporary stays in the UK, including students and skilled workers - should be considered separately from long-term migration. This could involve removing students and those on short-term work visas from net migration figures, and giving UK universities a greater role in approving student visas.

There has been some positive movement with the UK government launching a Migration Dialogue to consult Indian officials on proposals set out in its post-Brexit Immigration White Paper. With Priti Patel now in charge of the UK Home Office, there is renewed hope for some movement in the right direction in this area.

Living Bridge

Finally, the unquantifiable benefits of the UK's nearly 1.5-million strong Indian diaspora - aptly christened the “Living Bridge” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi - must be harnessed more proactively.

The FAC inquiry concluded that the UK has not done enough to draw upon the Indian diaspora. In 2013, former British Prime Minister David Cameron created the role of UK-Indian Diaspora Champion, charged with increasing links between the government and the diaspora, but this position was not renewed under Theresa May.

“We received evidence calling on the UK to set up a council of people of Indian origin to advise the British High Commission; to increase diaspora involvement with royal and ministerial visits to India; and to engage diaspora communities outside London in a 'national conversation' about UK-India ties,” the report advises.

This links back to the issue of movement of people, which plays a crucial role because without easy movement between the UK and India, there can be no living bridge. Improvements to the UK's visa processes would help build and make best use of diaspora links.

The FAC calls on the UK government to consider reprising the role of Indian Diaspora Champion, and appointing an advisory council made up of members of the diaspora and others with relevant expertise.


These are some very low-hanging fruit for a new Prime Minister who has vowed to “energise” the UK as he sets about to meet the October 31 Brexit deadline. At a time when Britain, and Boris Johnson, will be on the lookout for friends to strike some lucrative post-Brexit trade deals, India can prove that reliable partner. But clearly there is some bridge-building work that must begin right away.

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