Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2017-05-04 06:55:16 Published on May 04, 2017
After Brexit, UK-India trade ties can improve; Theresa May feting British Indians with an eye on polls.
Interpreting May’s big gamble: After Brexit, UK-India trade ties can improve

In a surprising but politically deft move, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided on April 18 to call a snap election on June 8, hoping the Conservatives could enhance their parliamentary majority given the vast lead they currently hold in opinion polls even as uncertainty over Brexit negotiations has waned. The decision, which comes just three weeks after the prime minister began the formal Brexit process, has shocked British politicians as they returned from their Easter break. May will hope that the election will strengthen her hand when it comes to negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. However, in Brussels and across the EU, it is likely to be seen as merely adding to the unpredictability of relations with the UK.

Ever since assuming office last year, she had been playing on the prospect of an early poll for fear that such a move would cause instability during Brexit negotiations. But she found that dealing with a small majority gave Conservative backbenchers significant power to force the government to back down on a variety of issues, an outcome no Prime Minister relishes. If she succeeds in getting the kind of Tory majority most opinion polls are predicting, then her hand in negotiations in Brussels — as well as in Westminster — would be strengthened by that political mandate. It was David Cameron who had won the last elections for the Tories, now May wants to put her own imprint on the Tory leadership with all the attendant risks.

The opposition Labour party is in disarray with its leader Jeremy Corbyn failing to make any impact, prompting even Tony Blair to suggest that he was tempted to join the electoral fray. Corbyn is a firm believer in taking his party further to the left, and so his theme is: it’s the powerful versus the people. His argument is that society is being “rigged” by elites making life unfair for the many. But even on this, Theresa May has been shaping the narrative. She has repeatedly talked about the “privileged few” and has reached out directly to those who are “just about managing”, those who are working hard, but the way that society is set up is somehow stacked against them.

India’s plans to re-envision Indo-UK ties will have to now wait till the end of this election cycle. Theresa May was in India last November on her first bilateral visit outside Europe to reinvigorate the India-United Kingdom strategic partnership and had suggested that her three-day maiden visit to India showed the importance of UK-India bilateral ties and was a true celebration of relations and shared ambition for the future. She did raise the issue of a free trade agreement with India. New Delhi, though interested, had decided to wait until after ‘Brexit’ — or the UK’s exit from the European Union — plays out.

As the UK struggles to re-define its global role post-Brexit, May has often mentioned India among the priority countries for a free trade agreement to boost the country’s ties outside the EU. At the Conservative Party conference last year, she had asserted that “countries including Canada, China, India, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea have already told us they would welcome talks on future free trade agreements.” As home secretary in the cabinet of David Cameron for six years, May was a hard-liner on immigration though her policies, more often than not, failed to yield the desired results. The Home Office, under her leadership, often resorted to unseemly gimmicks such as hiring vans to tour Indian-dominated areas of London with big ‘Go Home’ signs, apparently aimed at illegal immigrants. But as prime minister, May has hailed the contribution of British-Indians, suggesting that “in Britain’s Indian communities, we can see the good that can be done when people’s talents are unleashed. I think of all those running their own businesses, taking risks, and working hard so that they can provide for their families and take on staff.” She has also made it clear that the UK’s stand on Kashmir remains unchanged and it is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan to address, underlining that Kashmir was unlikely to be on the agenda during her bilateral talks with Modi.

May’s possible victory in the UK elections will allow London and New Delhi to chart out a fresh course in their bilateral ties. But as the last few years have taught us, politics is becoming increasingly unpredictable and May might lose her gamble too. India should be prepared for all eventualities.

This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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