The primary motivation for the British Prime Minister Theresa May to make a stopover in India seems to be to symbolically strengthen her hand before negotiating a new economic relationship between her country and the European Union. In addition, a high court ruling now indicates she will also have to negotiate with her own Parliament over Brexit, the impending divorce of Britain from the rest of Europe.
Ms May can be said to have interacted with only two types of governments since she has become PM. One set are those ruling countries in Europe. The other set are running large non-European economies like China and the US. India, the third largest foreign investor in Britain, would be a logical place for May to visit.
Her government’s overriding political concern right now is tackling the consequences of Brexit. While Ms May did not personally support Brexit, she has repeatedly said she will honour the results of the referendum. This means she faces a long and potentially fractious set of negotiations with Brussels. She also needs to reassure foreign investors and establishments in Britain, many of whom are being vigorously wooed by other European countries to migrate south of the English Channel, that the country is still a nation governed by sense and sensibility. Her visit to India will be about sending messages of reassurance to a number of audiences, including Indian companies in the country.
In one way, London’s single-minded focus on the country’s immediate future regarding Europe will be unfortunate. Ms May’s visit will only touch on the contours of the future Anglo-Indian relationship, especially once the country leaves the EU. The most important question will be that of immigration. Ever since Britain joined the then European Common Market, its immigration policies have deliberately discriminated against citizens from Commonwealth countries in favour of those from continental European states. The numbers for Indians becoming British citizens has been steadily declining since the 1970s. Ms May, as home secretary, tried to cut off one of the last few avenues for Indian migration by restricting the length Indian students could stay in Britain after they completed their studies.
Given the anti-immigrant sentiment that has now gripped all of Europe, it seems unlikely that Brexit will fundamentally change British migration policy. New Delhi should proceed on the assumption that a future Anglo-Indian relationship will be only little different than the one that exists between, say, India and Germany – other than a common interest in cricket and Enid Blyton.
Britain is strategically irrelevant to Asia. Its army today is smaller than Nepal’s. India should seek the most favourable terms for a future India-Britian trade and investment agreement with the emphasis on cultivating investment in both directions.
The idea of living in Southall may be popular with the man on the street, but the reality is that the story of the Indian in Blighty is history.