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New British PM likely to forge stronger ties with India



New British PM likely to forge stronger ties with India

With Britain’s voters handing a landslide victory to the Labour Party, the new government headed by Prime Minister Keir Starmer could be better placed to take forward a trade deal and forge stronger ties with India, despite irritants of the past.

Labour won 412 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, ending the Conservative Party’s 14-year grip on power. Starmer succeeds Rishi Sunak, the first British Asian premier who assiduously courted India and sought to push forward negotiations for the free trade agreement (FTA) that ran into rough weather because of differences over issues such as market access and tariffs on automobiles and alcohol.

Sunak had a deeper India connection – he was born in Southampton in 1980 to Indian-origin parents who migrated to the UK from East Africa. He is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of IT services company Infosys.

Starmer, a member of Parliament since 2015 and a human rights lawyer, served as the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales.

That saidthe change of government in London is unlikely to lead to a sea change in Britain’s overall policies towards India, especially in key areas such as defence and strategic cooperation and trade and investment ties, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named.

“Labour’s leadership made an effort to court India even before the elections was called by Sunak, sending key leaders such as shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and shadow business and trade secretary Jonathan Reynolds to New Delhi as recently as February to engage with ministers and business leaders,” one of the people cited above said.

Shairee Malhotra, associate fellow (Europe) at the Observer Research Foundation, said: “The prospects for the India-UK relationship are good under the Labour party because this is a reinvented and revamped Labour, and not the Labour of Jeremy Corbyn. It has moved more towards the centre under Starmer and is a more pragmatic party.”

In the past, the Labour Party has taken up matters such as human rights violations and the Kashmir issue with India more vigorously than other British political parties, but the people pointed to Starmer’s recent outreach to the Indian diaspora as well as the party’s sidelining of Corbyn, under whose leadership Labour had passed an emergency motion on the situation in Kashmir at its annual conference in September 2019.

The motion, which came in the wake of the Indian government’s decision to scrap Jammu & Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, said there was a humanitarian crisis in the region and that the Kashmiri people should be given the right of self-determination. Even at the time, Labour had responded to the controversy caused by the move by distancing itself from the motion and describing the Kashmir issue as a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan in which the party wouldn’t interfere.

However, there could still be demands from Labour members to take up some issues considered sensitive by India, a second person said, referring to calls last month by party leaders Angela Raynor and Zarah Sultana for an inquiry into the role reportedly played by Britain in the storming of the Golden Temple by Indian troops in 1984 to remove pro-Khalistan militants holed up in the shrine.

YK Sinha, who was India’s high commissioner to the UK during 2016-2018, attributed Labour’s massive win to anti-incumbency and the “economic mess created by Brexit”, or Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) under a Tory government. “Sunak tried to stabilise things but it wasn’t enough and he became the fall guy. But I don’t think this Labour government will be radically different from the Tory government. Labour is more centrist now and their policies could be tweaked,” he said.

Sinha said he expected the new British government’s immediate focus to be more on domestic issues, including fixing public services such as the National Health Service (NHS) and tackling a cost of living crisis, rather than matters of foreign policy. However, he noted that Labour leader Lammy and new foreign secretary, had spoken of continuity in the approach towards India.

“He’s talked about working for a free and open Indo-Pacific and the importance of India in the overall foreign policy,” Sinha said.

Addressing a session at the India Global Forum in London last month, Lammy described India as an economic and technological superpower that is “the future of Asia”. He said: “India contributes so much to British prosperity already. Last year, India was our second largest foreign direct investment contributor. Over 950 Indian companies are employing over 100,000 people in the UK. But it could be so, so much more as India is only our 12th largest trade partner.”

He added, “This is why for Keir Starmer’s changed Labour Party, our aspiration for a free trade deal between our two great nations is a floor not a ceiling. And why our leader has set his sights on a new UK-India strategic partnership that focuses on economic security, domestic security and global security.”

Lammy also emphasised the need for a “reset and a relaunch” of the India-UK relationship because the Conservative Party had “time and time again over promised and under delivered when it comes to India”.

Malhotra said Labour’s absolute majority in Parliament could make it easier for Starmer to get FTA done. “However, there are differences – the UK wants India to open up its services sector because services account for 80% of the British economy. Then there are the differences on tariffs for automobiles and liquor,” she said.

Labour, Malhotra noted, is “not attached to the anti-immigration rhetoric” and this is a factor that could benefit India, which has been pushing the British side to allow greater mobility for Indian professionals and students. “This makes a breakthrough much more likely under Labour,” she said.

Sinha said, “The two sides have narrowed their differences on the FTA but differences remain on issues that are important to both sides. Labour will be keen to show results in the FTA negotiations because, after all, this involves the world’s fifth and sixth largest economies.”

The Labour leadership should also be sensitive to India’s concerns related to the Indian diaspora in the UK, Sinha said, referring to the activities of pro-Khalistan elements, such as protests targeting the Indian mission. He referred to the support traditionally enjoyed by Labour among migrants from Pakistan’s Mirpur region and from Punjab, and said: “The hotheads [in the UK] need to be kept in touch. At the same time, India shouldn’t let such issues colour its perception [of the overall relationship].”

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