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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

London hails straight-talking Sitharaman’s new role as India’s defence minister

Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s new defence minister, will oversee close relations with Britain, which are seen as “another important pillar” in bilateral cooperation.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2017 22:21 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman.(Reuters File Photo)

Vince Cable, who as business secretary in the David Cameron government interacted with his counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman on trade issues, has hailed her new role as India’s defence minister even as many here recalled her straight-talking on India-UK ties in the past.

Sitharaman, who previously worked at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in London and the BBC World Service, was here in January 2015 as the minister for commerce for the tenth India-UK Joint Economic and Trade Committee meeting, when she had a bilateral with Cable. 

Now leader of the Liberal Democrats, Cable told Hindustan Times: “Sitharaman is a highly impressive minister with whom I had very productive meetings. I am delighted she has progressed to such a crucial and sensitive post in the (Indian) cabinet.”

Industrialist Swraj Paul added: “It is a great appointment. She is a very efficient and capable person. Everyone knows my admiration for the first woman who held the defence portfolio: Indira Gandhi. Sitharaman has a very big act to follow; I wish her the best.”

When Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to India in November 2016 on her first visit outside the European Union, seeking to enhance trade ties after Brexit, Sitharaman did some straight-talking while May was there.

The visa issue overshadowed May’s visit while her desire for a free trade agreement with India got less traction in the British and Indian media. As the commerce minister, Sitharaman’s remarks were considered significant in London.

Interviewed by a London-based presenter on BBC’s Hard Talk programme, she said from New Delhi that British visa restrictions for Indians “sound like non-tariff barriers in the services sector”, and noted that India was “not being treated as old friends any longer”.

“It’s a tight professional engagement, while we are also looking at India’s strengths and demanding our due place in the trade deal...Hope there will be necessary course correction during formal talks on a trade deal after Britain leaves the EU,” she said.

London believes that unlike the yet-to-be-reached free trade agreement between India and the European Union, it will be easier to forge such an agreement with post-Brexit UK when it is free from the bureaucracy of Brussels.

However, Cable is not so sure: “There is no sign of rethinking on the visa issue. I don’t think it (free trade pact) will happen. Sitharaman valued good relations, but there was quite a serious obstacle on the mobility issue in the trade talks. 

“Britain’s current crop of ministers seem not to have taken on board that the attempted EU-India agreement foundered not because of the rest of the EU but, in substantial part, because Britain rejected it. 

“Attempts to open the UK to more Indian IT specialists and other professionals (the so-called Mode 4) foundered on the objections of Theresa May. The main irritant in UK-India relations is visas. In the absence of creative ideas on freeing up immigration and visiting rights from India, ministers will continue to get a flea in their ear in Delhi,” Cable added, reflecting the views of Sitharaman.

As defence minister, Sitharaman will oversee close relations with Britain, which are seen as “another important pillar” in bilateral cooperation. The most recent publicly held joint event was the naval exercise Konkan 2017, which was conducted in Plymouth in May and attended by the stealth frigate INS Tarkash.

The last annual meeting of the Defence Consultative Group of the two countries was held in New Delhi in December 2016. During the visit here of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2015, the two sides agreed to elevate their defence relationship by establishing capability partnerships in strategic areas.

First Published: Sep 04, 2017 22:21 IST

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