Like elsewhere in the world, the shock outcome of the UK elections last week was front-page news in India’s English dailies. It attracted considerable editorial comment as well. Beyond that, there was little interest in what the election result could hold 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, of course, centuries. The UK is still home to a large proportion of the Indian diaspora. Indian companies remain invested in the UK as do a much larger number of UK firms in India. For the wealthy (by Indian standards) tourist, the UK remains one of the first countries to visit. And many high-profile businesspeople prefer to park themselves there!
Foreign policy interests lie elsewhere
Indian foreign policy interest is, however, 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 being 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 does not have the necessary economic or political clout for a place in the strategy India has chosen to deal with China. But the European Union with its sheer economic size does have it, notwithstanding the continuing problems with the euro. 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. But a leading newspaper in India labelled it editorially 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 (done when May was Home Secretary) has seen Indian student numbers – travelling to the UK from India’s aspiring middle and upper middle classes – drop by 50%. Australia has long overtaken the UK as the second most preferred destination; the US is the first. Easier visa rules and cheaper tuition fees have taken Indian students to Australian rather than UK universities.
In trade, the UK remains an important market for Indian goods, but the country is no longer a major source of imports. India now 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.
Fading interest in the UK
The former colony seems to no longer need the former coloniser. These are not new developments. They have been developing over the years and will now strengthen after Brexit.
This explains the fading of interest in the UK election outcome after the first burst of news about the unexpected result. 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 no longer 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, which has been battling a secessionist movement in Kashmir, wondered how the UK could contemplate the possibility of a separation.
For now, the fading interest is set to continue.