Pundits and pollsters continue to agonise over the real message of the June 23 Brexit vote – “Brexit means Brexit” doesn’t quite mean much – but 2016 will go down in history as the year that marked a milestone in how Britain sees itself and the world sees it.
Some remain optimistic Brexit may not actually happen, but the vote to leave the European Union will influence much of politics in 2017 and until the next general election in 2020. Nobody quite yet knows how it will all pan out.
It was the year when former prime minister David Cameron fell on his political sword by holding the referendum, and went into oblivion. His successor, Theresa May, evoked visions of another Margaret Thatcher, but soon faced a bad press on plans, or the lack of them, for Brexit.
India was often mentioned in the run-up to the referendum, as a natural trade partner after Britain leaves the EU, but pro-Brexit leaders such as Priti Patel who promised easier visa regimes, and more, for India and the Commonwealth, have gone silent on those issues.
May’s first visit outside the EU to New Delhi was marked by the official overly optimistic accounts of relationship between the two countries, but it didn’t exactly set the Yamuna on fire, as visa issues continued to cast a dark shadow over ties.
Reflecting an increasingly economically confident India, Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman called visa curbs as a form of “non-tariff barrier,” while Sheffield University vice-chancellor Keith Burnett said he was “truly ashamed” when he was told of visa-related problems while accompanying May on the visit.
May’s visit was called “a near pointless jolly to India”, and worse, after the expectation in British quarters that she would extend a two-year pilot for easier and cheaper visa currently underway in China to India was belied.
Tim Hewish of the Royal Commonwealth Society, who authored a study that made the economic and social case for extending the pilot to India, told HT: “The PM’s visit to India provided the right time and place; however it was certainly a missed opportunity and caused great disappointment both in the UK and in India”.
“With the UK-India Year of Culture due to start next year, not having easier and cheaper visitor visa access undermines the cross collaboration the year hopes to foster. The lack of goodwill may well come to hamper any future free trade deals post-Brexit”, he added.
Indian quarters say New Delhi will watch how Brexit plays out in the next two years without showing much enthusiasm for a free trade agreement, given that India’s experience of such agreements with other countries has not exactly delivered results.
May was also at the centre of some criticism in Indian quarters for announcing another consultation on the issue of including caste-based discrimination in British law. Her party is seen to be closer to the lobby opposed to any such legislation as the issue continues to sharply divide the Indian community.
The year also marked the first extradition to India since both countries signed an extradition treaty in 1992, when a team of Indian security officials arrived here to escort Samirbhai Vinubhai Patel back home to face justice in a case related to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Diplomatically, India House witnessed history of sorts when Navtej Sarna took over as the high commissioner in January, but left in October in one of the shortest tenures since independence (the shortest was of Prakash Mehrotra; July to December 1984).
Maureen Travis, who witnessed history in India House as one of its first employees soon after independence, passed away in November, having worked with 25 high commissioners and after passionately looking after the library for decades.
Enoch Powell, the enigmatic Tory leader, once characterized India-Britain ties as a “shared hallucination”. But 2016 may be the year when the relationship is set to be put on a more realistic footing, given the changed positions of the two countries on the international stage.