At some point during the life of the next British parliament—assuming the wafer-thin Conservative majority does not collapse—India’s economy will grow larger than that of Britain. This has been a relatively short interlude in the grand scheme of things. British output drew level with India later than you probably think, in 1890, just one year after Jawaharlal Nehru was born, and five years after the founding of the Congress party. The crossover will mark more than just the continued tilting of the global economic and political scales from West to East. It will carry shades of a rejoinder to history, a perceived return to a more natural order of things, and a vindication of India’s former prime minister I.K. Gujral’s notorious remark that Britain was “a third-rate power nursing delusions of the grandeur of its past”.
In truth, the UK-India relationship staggers under the too vast orb of history. I am bemused by many Indian perceptions of Britain, which draw selectively from right-wing historians like Andrew Roberts, who periodically make inane pronouncements about Indian ingratitude for empire. Indians argue that Britain is in hock to Pakistan, while praising France as a dependable ally. Yet, France exported around $1 billion more in arms to Islamabad than did Britain over the quarter century from 1990 to 2015, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Over that same period, Britain exported $2.6 billion worth of arms to India, over twice as much as France. Many persist in Gujral’s contemptuous view of British power, despite the fact that the country continues to spend almost $10 billion more on defence than France, indeed more than any great power in Asia except China, and despite the International Monetary Fund’s forecasts that the UK will outgrow both Germany and France both this and next year, in spite of the grievous self-inflicted wound of Brexit. Critics may write these claims off as patriotic bleating, but they are intended as no more than a gentle corrective.
On the other side, Brexit has drawn out an equally tendentious streak in the British Right, characterized by the impulse to return to the prelapsarian days before the European project, through the means of a rejuvenated Commonwealth or the even fuzzier notion of an Anglosphere. Having swept to electoral victory on a torrent of lies, the “Brexiteers” show no grasp of the dramatic changes in UK-Asia trading patterns since the post-war decades, India’s increasing alienation from the institutions and animating spirit of the Commonwealth, and the uncertainty that will persist for years until the terms of British access to the European single market become clear. These fantasists have no real understanding of India and its business environment, seeing the country only as a screen on which to project half-baked economic visions.
A particular irony was this week’s flap around immigration, with India’s ministry of external affairs warning Britain that “mobility of people is closely linked to free flow of finance, goods and services”. This, of course, is the very principle that is driving British Prime Minister Theresa May towards a so-called “hard Brexit”, under the self-imposed pressure of shutting down the free movement of European labour and assuaging the anti-immigrant move. It was always clear from the languorous European Union (EU)-India free trade negotiations, as well as previous Indian deals with South Korea and Singapore, that India placed a high priority on liberalization in the so-called Mode 4 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services, which covers the temporary movement of service providers from one country to another. Yet, having presided over a steady fall in Indian student numbers as home minister, May decided, with impeccable timing, to tighten work visa rules further just as she flew into New Delhi.
In fairness, May herself has noted that nine of 10 Indians who applied for visa in the year to June were accepted. Data also shows that work visas granted to Indian nationals climbed steadily from 2012 to 2014, where they stood at their highest levels in a decade. And in the long term, it is entirely possible that sharp reductions in EU migration into Britain will create political space for larger, especially high skilled, flows from Asia. The problem is that those who fuelled the toxic environment around immigration during the EU referendum, many of whom sit in May’s cabinet, are hardly the most credible bearers of this message.
In general, a sense of perspective is required. The UK-India relationship is objectively healthy, as evidenced by the broad and substantive joint statement released on Monday. That statement emphasized the countries’ shared interest in a “rules-based international system” adapted to the 21st century. It also included tacit rebukes to Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea and Pakistan on terrorism. It covered a range of cultural, educational, scientific and financial initiatives that would be the envy of many bilateral relationships. Brexit will cast a thick fog over the shape of the future economic relationship, adding to the sense of mutual incomprehension that, I think, has grown in recent years. But it would be foolish to discount the opportunities that will persist, especially if British leaders can transcend our culture wars, avoid a drastic breach with the European single market, and retain a strategic—not just mercantilist, or transactional—view of India.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
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