New Delhi: Boris Johnson, 55, set to become Britain’s prime minister, has at least two India connections. His former wife was partly of Indian origin and his younger brother Jo was India correspondent of The Financial Times in 2006-07.
Johnson’s familiarity with India under these circumstances is, however, unlikely to help steady the course of the India-Britain bilateral relationship that has been in a limbo since Britons voted for separation from the European Union in 2016.
One of Johnson’s priorities when he visited India as foreign secretary was to conclude a free trade pact with Asia’s third largest economy, which would be ready for signing when Britain exited the EU in March 2019.
“The time is fast upon us when we need to turbocharge the relationship in the form of a new trade deal," Johnson had said during a visit in January 2017. “We can’t do it now (before Brexit terms are finalised) but we can sketch it out on the back of an envelope," he had said.
With Johnson, widely seen as a maverick with his trademark mop of unruly blonde hair, assuming the mantle of prime minister of Britain, that emphasis on a free trade deal is likely to continue.
Outgoing prime minister Theresa May had identified India, China and the US as key partners to fastrack independent trade deals once Brexit was complete, and she had visited India in November 2016 with a large trade delegation. That visit was then billed as the May’s first bilateral visit abroad outside of Europe signifying the importance attached to the India-Britain relationship.
But Britain has had no luck in trying to get India to negotiate a trade deal simply because New Delhi is waiting to see the terms and conditions under which Britain exits the EU as per the new deadline in October this year. A “no deal" Brexit – under which Britain leaves the EU without any agreement on relationship with the EU – is seen as disadvantageous to Britain but strengthening India’s hand in any future trade negotiations.
New Delhi wants a deal with easier immigration norms for its people. But with Brexit premised on keeping out foreigners, it is difficult to predict how any such negotiations will proceed especially since Johnson is seen as Brexit's poster boy.
According to the Indian foreign ministry website, Britain is the fourth largest investor in India, after Mauritius, Singapore and Japan with a cumulative equity investment of US $26.09 billion (April 2000-June 2018).
On its part, India is the third largest investor in Britain and has emerged as the second largest international job creator with Indian companies having created over 110,000 jobs in Britain. The total consolidated revenue of Indian companies in Britain is £47.5 billion with technical and telecom sector accounting for 31% of the revenues, a note on the website said.
These statistics could undergo a change once the terms of Brexit become clear. Uncertainty over Brexit has caused many Indian companies to look at shifting their bases of operations to countries like Netherlands. Indian companies have also been slow in rolling out new investments in Britain given the uncertainties over separation from the EU.
This apart, one thing that could cement a stronger political relationship between India and the Johnson government is if Britain cracks down on supporters of the Khalistan movement which seeks a separate state for Sikhs carved out of Punjab. Last year, the British government refused to accede to an Indian request seeking a denial of permission to pro-Khalistan supporters planning a major demonstration -- something that did not go down well with India. Britain had said its laws allow “people to gather together and to demonstrate their views, provided that they do so within the law".
The smooth extradition of Indian fugitive economic offenders like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi could also help strengthen bilateral relationship.