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UK PM hints at key trade deal; may discuss Ukraine with Modi

Updated on Apr 22, 2022 07:14 AM IST

British PM Boris Johnson began a two-day visit to India by flying into Gujarat, the ancestral home of almost half of the Indian-origin population of the UK and the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves from an excavator during his visit at the JCB factory in Vadodara, Gujarat, on April 21, 2022. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/POOL/AFP)
By, , Ahmedabad/new Delhi

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who on Thursday became the first British premier to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s iconic Sabarmati Ashram, has signalled his intention to seal a crucial trade deal with India before the end of the year and said he will discuss the Ukraine crisis with his Indian counterpart.

Johnson began a two-day visit to India by flying into Gujarat, the ancestral home of almost half of the Indian-origin population of the UK and the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is the first British premier to visit Gujarat and the Sabarmati Ashram, which was home to Gandhi during 1917-1930 and a key centre of India’s struggle to attain independence from British rule.

After going around the ashram with Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, Johnson wrote in the visitor’s book: “It is an immense privilege to come to the ashram of this extraordinary man, and to understand how he mobilised such simple principles of truth and non-violence to change the world for the better.”

Johnson told reporters in Gujarat that Britain is hoping to conclude a free trade agreement (FTA) with India “by the autumn”. Earlier, speaking to reporters on the plane, Johnson indicated he was ready to offer more visas to India in order to clinch the FTA that could boost annual bilateral trade by billions of pounds.

“I have always been in favour of talented people coming to [the UK],” he said. “We are short to the tune of hundreds of thousands of people in our economy and we need to have a progressive approach and we will.”

Johnson’s remarks came ahead of the third round of negotiations on the India-UK FTA, set to begin in New Delhi on April 25. While a trade deal with India is one of Britain’s priorities, the Indian side has made mobility for its professionals and students, including relaxing regulations and lowering fees, a key issue in the negotiations.

Ahead of Johnson’s arrival, the British side highlighted new investments and export deals worth more than £1 billion that would be unveiled during the visit and lead to the creation of 11,000 jobs in the UK. Britain has said the FTA could double British exports to India, and boost trade by £28 billion ($38 billion) a year by 2035.

Johnson also told reporters that he would discuss the Ukraine crisis during his meeting with Modi in New Delhi on Friday, even as he emphasised the need to reduce reliance on foreign oil and gas because of the conflict in Europe. He noted that the Indian side was “very strong in their condemnation of the atrocities in Bucha”.

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“As I think everybody understands, India and Russia have, historically, a very different relationship perhaps than Russia and the UK have had over the last couple of decades. We have to reflect that reality, but clearly I’ll be talking about it to PM Modi,” he said.

New Delhi, which imports military hardware from Russia and has stepped up purchases of Russian energy, has not publicly censured Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine though it has consistently called for an end to hostilities and a return to the path of dialogue.

Johnson said India and the UK “share anxieties about autocracies around the world”. Stressing the need to shift from a reliance on foreign energy, he said: “We’re both democracies, and we want to stick together.” “One of the things that we’re talking about is what we can do to build partnerships on hydrogen, on electric vehicles, on offshore wind...”

Johnson began his visit with a roadshow from Ahmedabad airport to his hotel. He later visited the Gujarat Biotechnology University, Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar and the new factory of heavy-construction equipment manufacturer JCB at Halol in Panchmahals district, and met Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani at his firm’s global headquarters in Ahmedabad.

Johnson and Adani discussed key areas of cooperation, such as energy transition, climate action, aerospace and defence, and human capital. “Delighted to support climate & sustainability agenda with a focus on renewables, green H2 & new energy. Will also work with UK companies to co-create defence & aerospace technologies,” Adani tweeted.

“The big-ticket item on the agenda was collaboration in defence. With India set to invest $300 billion by 2030 to modernise its armed forces, Adani’s goal is to develop deep OEM capabilities and work towards making India an export hub for defence,” an Adani group official said.

At the meeting, Adani anno-unced an academic facilitation programme for Indians through the UK government’s prestigious Chevening scholarship programme. The Adani Group will provide £200,000 every year for five scholarships for Indians to pursue a master’s degree in UK.

Johnson’s visit to the JCB factory, where he climbed into an excavator and worked its controls, was criticised in sections of British media, as it came a day after the UK firm’s machinery was used to raze homes in a part of New Delhi affected by sectarian violence.

Amnesty India tweeted: “In the backdrop of Municipal Corporation of Delhi using JCB bulldozers to raze down shops of Muslims in north-west Delhi’s Jahangirpuri yesterday, UK PM’s inauguration of a JCB factory in Gujarat is not only ignorant but his silence on the incident is deafening.”

Asked if he would raise the demolitions with the Indian Prime Minister, Johnson replied: “We always raise the difficult issues...but the fact is that India is a country of 1.35 billion people and it is democratic, it’s the world’s largest democracy.”

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