The temptation to see the bonding between the two leaders as that of two Hindus is off the mark
BY PARSA VENKATESHWAR RAO JR
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi shook hands with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, it must have occurred to each that the fact that they were both believing and practising Hindus standing on the Hindu island of Bali in Muslim Indonesia was just a minor detail which had its own sweet tones of poetic justice, but that more importantly they were heads of government of two countries, and that their primary responsibility was towards their own peoples. In the case of Sunak, it is to the people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in that of Modi to the 1.4 billion Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians. And that they have to strengthen India-UK ties because it is of strategic importance to their respective countries. Sunak is as enthusiastic about the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India as were his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, because they all look to India as a key economic partner, especially after Brexit. India is seen as an attractive market for Britain. India too is keen on the FTA because it is seen as beneficial to India. But it is not likely to happen in a hurry.
The Modi-Sunak Bali meeting has yielded a positive result with the Sunak government agreeing to allow 3,000 professionals in the 18- 30 age group every year to work in Britain for two years. And a similar opportunity is there for British professionals of the same age group to come to India. It is generally expected that it is the Indians who will take advantage of the scheme more than the British. But there might be a surprise here because Britons may want to come to India given the acute cost of living crisis that Britain is facing. Downing Street, the British prime minister’s home and office, has placed the agreement in the wider Indo-Pacific context. It said, “The launch of the scheme is a significant moment both for our bilateral relationship with India and UK’s wider commitment to forging stronger links with the Indo-Pacific region to strengthen both our economies.”
If this is the relatively sweet part of the deal, the bitter part is about Indian immigrants who are in Britain without visas. But it has been worded rather ambiguously, saying that it relates to “immigration offenders” on both sides. The British PMO explained: “A landmark Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the UK and India in May 2021 aimed at increasing mobility between our two countries, returning those with no right to be in the UK and India, respectively, and sharing best practices on organised immigration crime.” (This leaves out economic offenders in India now in Britain like business tycoons Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya because their extradition cases are being dealt with on a separate footing. Both Modi and Mallya are in Britain with proper documents, and the Indian government is seeking their extradition through the British courts.)
There are quite many loose ends on this front. There would be many people in Britain without visas or whose visas have expired but who are not guilty of any other criminal offences. The Conservative government has taken a tough position on immigration as such, and this has been reflected in the unpopular policy of repatriating unwanted immigrants to Rwanda through an agreement between Rwanda and Britain.
Sunak has brought back a fellow Indian-origin Briton, Suella Braverman, as home secretary despite her tough stance and undiplomatic expression on the issue of immigrants. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in October, she had blamed the clashes between India-origin and Pakistan-origin migrants in Leicester after a cricket match in Dubai on unchecked migration and the failure of migrants to integrate into British society. But Braverman’s stance on immigration is that of the Conservative governments of the past three years.
Sunak again has a very strong anti-Russian stance over the Ukraine war but like the United States, the UK too is now reconciled to the fact that neither Britain nor the US can push India around on the close ties between New Delhi and Moscow. The Modi-Sunak equation will be that of the India-UK equation, and it is as it should be.