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Bogged down by Brexit, Britain PM Theresa May turns to India for good news

As Prime Minister Theresa May took off from a grey, drizzly Heathrow for New Delhi early on Sunday morning, the many twists and turns related to Brexit overshadowed her first bilateral visit that was intended to signal to Brussels that Britain had good trade options.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2016 07:51 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
Brexit,Theresa May,India
British Prime Minister Theresa May will reach India on Sunday evening. (REUTERS FILE)

As Prime Minister Theresa May took off from a grey, drizzly Heathrow for New Delhi early on Sunday morning, the many twists and turns related to Brexit overshadowed her first bilateral visit that was intended to signal to Brussels that Britain had good trade options.

Held back by Thursday’s high court verdict that will likely delay thebeginning ofthe process of leaving the EU, May also faced a new challenge after her party MP resigned against her government’s approach to Brexit. The context makes the India visit more important to May.

Not only will it help May gain points with Brussels, but also show to the British public that she is already planning for life after Brexit, in which India, as “the leading player in world economy” – as a No 10 official put it – will be crucial.

Besides the centrality of trade for Britain, an important agenda of the visit is defence and security, which includes defence-related sales as well as increasing coordination on international terrorism.

“We are committed to developing a strong defence-security relationship with India”, the No 10 official said in a pre-departure briefing, but indicated that contrary to expectations in New Delhi, May was unlikely to use strong words against Pakistan from Indian soil.

“Both India and Pakistan are loyal friends, we have links with both. We encourage both sides to maintain good relations. We issued strong condemnation at the time (of the Pathankot attack). We stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against terrorism”, she said.

Indian circles recall the 2010 visit of former prime minister David Cameron, when he gladdened hearts in New Delhi by cautioning Pakistan that it could “not look both ways” on the issue of terrorism. May is unlikely to improve on this during the three-day visit.

Thevisit may be overshadowed by the US presidential election, but unlike previous visits by British prime ministers, May is likely to see a more ‘straight-talking’ Indian side, reflecting contemporarychanges in the power geometries of India and Britain on the global stage.

Read more| May’s India visit: Will UK fulfil its stated aim of being open to the world?

There is a growing realisation that the UKvisa issue is important for businessmen and others, but contemporaryIndia with several optionsneednot harp on it at every diplomatic engagement with Britain.

“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”, India'sacting high commissioner Dinesh Patnaik told Hindustan Times.

One of the ‘deliverables’ expected to be announced is the extension of a pilot currently underway in Chinafor cheaper and longer-duration UKvisas for tourists to India. Several stakeholders have beendemanding the extension for the benefit of Britain.

Under the pilot, a UK visa valid for two years is offered to Chinese tourists for £87. For the same fee, Indians get the visa for a maximum of six months andatwo-year visa for Indians costs £330.

“We are ready to help Britain deal with the Brexit situation. We stand by Britain in this time of crisis; that is what friends do. There are many ongoing initiatives between us in trade and other areas, and they would have continued even if there were no Brexit”, Patnaik added.

Both India and Britain are among top investors and job creatorsin the other country, but trade has remained sluggish and Cameron’s 2010 ambition to double trade by 2015 did not come anywhere near realization.

Trade remains the main focus of this visit in the hope that “ambition can be turned into action”, but there were already questions about theabsence ofbigBritish companies on May's delegation,and if they had kept away due to uncertainties spawned by theBrexit situation.

The cricket-loving May is likely to meet some Indian cricket legends during the visit that will include a luncheon with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Hyderabad House, inaugurating the India-UK Tech summit and a visit to Bengaluru.

Will she wear a sari, as she did during an Asian event in London some years ago?

The No 10 official remarked with a smile: “You will have to wait and see”.

Read more| India explores special visa options before UK PM Theresa May’s visit

First Published: Nov 06, 2016 07:11 IST