London: The United Kingdom (UK)-India ties grew steadily in 2017, with the British government laying the groundwork for a new post-Brexit economic partnership with New Delhi amid concerns over its tough stance on movement of professionals and students between the two nations.
The cultural strand of the bilateral relationship may have dominated the year, with grand celebrations at some of the UK’s major institutions to also mark 70 years of India’s independence, but the Foreign Office highlighted that other aspects of the ties remain equally at the forefront, especially within the context of Brexit.
“Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi described the connection between our people as a ‘living bridge’ and that link has been strengthened during the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture,” said a UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesperson.
“Our economic relationship is thriving and we want to expand our 16 billion pounds worth of bilateral trade, generating more jobs and building skills in the coming years, especially looking ahead to intensifying our trading relationship after Britain leaves the EU,” the spokesperson said.
Describing the two countries as “modern, diverse and vibrant democracies”, the UK government is keen to step into the New Year by building on the “shared connections and values” which make for a “natural partnership” as Britain prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April, 2018.
Prince Charles, who will be stepping in for the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth at this year’s proceedings, had extended a formal invitation to Prime Minister Modi during a high-profile visit to India in November.
“Next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will provide an opportunity for the UK, India and all Commonwealth members to build a reformed and revitalised Commonwealth that is more prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair for all our citizens,” the FCO spokesperson noted.
As the UK prepares for a potential Modi visit for the summit next year, it will be keen to edge a little closer to the much-anticipated free trade agreement that both sides are expected to clinch once Britain has formally exited the EU by March 2019.
A Joint Working Group on Trade set up to lay the groundwork for a new post-Brexit economic partnership has held a few meetings this year but progress on that front is unlikely to be very significant until Britain is seen to soften its stance on the free movement of professionals and students.
Indian high commissioner to the UK, Y.K. Sinha, has been making that point at various platforms, most recently in November at the London launch of the Indian Professionals Forum (IPF), a non-profit think-tank for Indian diaspora related policy advocacy set up to strengthen India-UK relations.
The envoy said that as Indian professionals will play an important role in defining the “contours of a winning partnership between India and the UK”, freer movement of professionals between the two countries will be central to any “mutually beneficial agreement” in the future.
The latest UK Home Office statistics held up some promise as the declining trend among Indian students coming to study at UK institutions seems to have reversed somewhat, with 2,962 more students coming to study in the UK in 2017 to make up a total of 14,081, up 27% from last year’s 11,119. Indian student numbers are now closer to the US (15,039) but still far behind the UK’s largest overseas student category of China (88,258).
London Mayor Sadiq Khan during his India visit had said he was “lobbying” with the British government to change its stringent visa norms, which he termed as a “big mistake”. Recently, the Theresa May government changed its visa policy for non-EU (European Union) nationals to curb its soaring immigration figures.
The policy which came into effect in November will affect a large number of Indians, especially IT professionals. One of the loudest voices claiming there is no bar on the number of Indian students who can come to the UK under the Theresa May-led Conservative party government was the senior- most Indian-origin minister in the UK Cabinet, Priti Patel.
However, she had an extremely turbulent year as she was forced to resign as Secretary of State for International Development after a series of damaging revelations around a dozen undisclosed meetings with Israeli political leaders during a “holiday” to the country.
The Gujarati-origin MP, who characterises Prime Minister Modi as a “great friend” of Britain, has since been shunted to the back-benches of the Tory party. However, her pro-Brexit views are expected to bring her back into the headlines soon as the UK continues to negotiate a tenuous agreement with the EU over its future trading relations with the 27-member economic bloc.
Security issues are expected to be central to the ongoing negotiations, especially against the backdrop of Britain being the target of major terrorist attacks throughout the year. A car rampage into the side wall of the Palace of Westminster, which houses the Parliament complex, in central London in March was followed by a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May and a knife attack on the streets of London days later in early June.
A few days later a vehicle stormed towards a mosque in Finsbury Park area of London, adding to an already heightened sense of terror alert in the country. The UK and India had been also locked in a stalemate over the election for the International Court of Justice.
India’s Dalveer Bhandari and Britain’s Christopher Greenwood were both hoping to win re-election. Just before the 11th round of voting, Britain withdrew its candidate, paving the way for India’s victory. The UK media termed the defeat as a “humiliating blow” for the country even as India asserted that the hard-fought race will not impact the bilateral ties.
As the year comes to a close, it will be the extradition trial of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya that will continue to be in the limelight. The trial, to determine if the 61-year-old businessman can be forced to return to India to face charges of fraud and money laundering amounting to nearly Rs9,000 crores, is set to conclude in December.
But with the verdict expected only in January 2018, this news is all set to spill over into the New Year and keep India-UK relations within the context of their extradition treaty in the news for some months to come.
The year 2017 had been ear-marked as the UK-India Year of Culture, which was inaugurated in style with a historic royal reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in February.
The 91-year-old monarch had an impromptu lesson in some classical mudras with Indian dancer Arunima as she opened the doors of her London home to Indian music and dance. The palace facade itself was lit up by a colourful projection of India’s national bird, the peacock.