Who exactly is Theresa May, soon to be the second British woman prime minister who may have an equally historic influence as the first, Margaret Thatcher? May visited India only once in 2012, but has already had much impact on the country and its citizens.
The tall, lanky and seemingly shy MP from Maidenhead is known as a tough, no-nonsense home secretary who does not do small talk – former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg dealt with her often but always came away reinforcing his vision of her as an “ice maiden”.
Oxford-educated May, 59, has had the longest tenure in a century, of over six years, in the Home Office, which is seen as the graveyard of many political careers. And no home secretary has had more impact on sensitive issues such as immigration and terrorism than May.
Prime Minister David Cameron laid considerable emphasis on India since 2010 – he travelled to the country three times – while May visited once, addressing top officers in the National Police Academy in Hyderabad in November 2012, and mentioning how she incorporated the lessons of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in Britain’s security forces.
As prime minister, May is expected to continue Cameron’s focus on India, particularly given that the Brexit camp privileged trade ties with India, China and the Commonwealth after leaving the European Union. May often quietly attends Indian festivals in Maidenhead.
Conservative MP Alok Sharma told Hindustan Times: “Theresa May is a hugely respected and experienced politician who recognises the fantastic potential for significantly increasing bi-lateral trade between the UK and India. I am absolutely confident that in Theresa May, India will find a very good friend and speaking partner with a real can-do attitude.”
He added: “Having myself worked for some time on the joint agenda of Indian companies and PSUs raising finance in London, not least through the issue of rupee denominated ‘masala’ bonds, I very much hope that both governments will continue to focus on this key and mutually beneficial economic priority and we will together deliver on the mantra ‘Make in India, Finance in London’.”
But even if May did not engage much in parliamentary debates on issues related to India since 2010, she has had much impact on the country, mainly in the area of immigration. In 2013, she infuriated New Delhi by including India in a list of five countries whose citizens were to be subjected to a visa bond of £3000 to be refunded after they returned to their countries.
The scheme was dropped in November 2013, but her intention to clamp down on immigration was already clear. In April 2012, she closed the post-study work visa, which was popular among self-financing Indian students, and which was one of the key reasons for a major drop in the number of Indian students coming to British universities.
May received much praise for closing down bogus colleges that enrolled a large number of Indian and other non-EU students, many of whom had objectives other than studies. May has since resisted much pressure from universities and others to ease curbs on student visas.
Earlier this year, May dropped the pro-Khalistan International Sikh Youth Federation from the list of banned organisations in a move that “disappointed” New Delhi, while she continued to delay deciding on the extradition of wanted Indians such as Tiger Hanif, who has made a final representation to her to avoid extradition after exhausting all legal avenues.
Two other May measures affecting thousands of Indians are the imposition of salary thresholds for those seeking permanent residence after a five-year stay, and for British nationals seeking to bring non-EU spouses to the country; the second threshold affecting what are called “Skype families” is currently facing legal challenge.
Thousands of Indians were also affected earlier this year when her department took action – including deportation but ultimately struck down in court – after flaws in an English-language test centre were extrapolated to all who had taken the mandatory exam for visa purposes, and cancelled their results.
Outside of politics, May and her husband Philip John May are known to be keen cricket fans. They were introduced at an Oxford Conservative disco by former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1976, which was May’s first year at university.
May’s cricket hero is Geoff Boycott, the dour Yorkshireman who was the scourge of bowlers around the world during his time – and that says something about her. She was also enamoured of the tall West Indian speedster Tony Gray. Her love of cooking and bold shoe designs is well known.