When British Prime Minister Theresa May takes off for India for a three-day visit from November 6, she will have Brussels as much on her mind as New Delhi, given the tortuous path she has to tread to leave the EU and chart a future in post-Brexit UK.
Bilateralism aside, the India visit is part of the increasingly acrimonious perception battle, and May’s message to Brussels will be: “I have options outside the EU. We are getting a deal with as large a market as India”.
Eagerness about the visit is evident on the British side beyond the symbolism that it is May’s first bilateral visit outside Europe since taking over as prime minister in the aftermath of the June 23 Brexit vote. Her team will include over 160 people, mostly focused on trade.
With the old power equation of “deliverer and supplicant” in India-Britain relations now consigned to history, the Indian side is preparing for some straight talk during the visit: easier visa access and no more fence-sitting on terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
“We are not going to lose much if you don’t allow short-term migration of students, tourists, professionals. Post-Brexit, you need Indians. Our group tourists return from France, don’t come to Britain due to difficult visa conditions,” said India's acting high commissioner Dinesh Patnaik.
It is expected that May will at least announce the extension of a pilot currently underway in China to offer easier, longer and cheaper visa to tourists. Under the pilot, a UK visa valid for two years is offered for £87; for the same fee, Indians get the visa for a maximum of six months. A two-year visa for Indians costs £330.
“Students, tourists and other short-term visitors are not migrants under any definition,” Patnaik said, reflecting the growing demand from universities and other stakeholders to remove students from net migration figures – a demand May has consistently turned down.
Indian circles in London do not see May’s three visits to Pakistan when she was home secretary as significant, though she travelled to India only once (in 2012). The rationale offered is that she knows where the problem lies, since issues related with Pakistan are part of global concerns about terrorism.
Given the many “umbilical” links between the two countries, the thinking is that whichever party is in power in London or New Delhi, closer relations are imperative — more so in the post-Brexit situation for Britain, which will need an old partner like India now more than ever.
May and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are scheduled to inaugurate the Indo-UK tech Summit in New Delhi on November 7. Besides bilateral talks, May is also likely to visit Bengaluru or Jaipur, as ministers in her team participate in joint economic and other committee meetings.