Shubhajit Roy: You came to India once to teach English and then three decades later, last year in January, as the High Commissioner. What do you think has changed? Has anything surprised you after all these years?
Alexander Ellis: I was here in 1986. I was 18 then and it was an overwhelming experience. India is a very old set of civilisations and so in some aspects, it’s a very identifiable country. What’s different is entrepreneurship and capitalism. There are big changes in terms of moving away from a particular economic policy into a different one. It’s a more prosperous country. Back then you could get Limca, Thums Up or Goldspot but no bottled water. The only foreign car was Maruti. And a lot more people on bicycles. In that sense, it feels quite different. But at the same time, it is an old complex country. So the same but very different.
Shubhajit Roy: India is celebrating 75 years of Independence. PM Modi in his speeches, especially at the Red Fort on August 15, and then later S Jaishankar at the UN, talked about ‘coming out of the colonial mindset’. How do you see that speech?
Ellis: I go to the Red Fort each August 15th and listen to that speech. First of all, it is a good test of my Hindi, which I probably fail, and second, I like to watch the physicality of a leader. I always think about the future whilst knowing and respecting the past. So what I really hear in PM Modi is him talking about India becoming a developed country by 2047, then the kind of long-term ambition which he sets and the path India is on. In Glasgow, at the climate change summit last year, he spoke about India becoming net zero by 2070. We are two sovereign equals, who are looking to the future and trying to do all the things which will develop our economies and societies in the next 25 years. I’m aware there’s a debate in India, about the past and so forth. That is for India to have. The British High Commissioner should be thinking about British interests and how they work and the UK-India partnership. Both my grandfathers lived in this country. My maternal grandfather was in the Indian Army. I still have echoes of that past. You have to know it and respect it. But I don’t want the UK and India to get stuck in it.
Shubhajit Roy: Do you get a sense of bitterness or hostility in some of your conversations with Indian politicians, interlocutors, and bureaucrats?
Ellis: It’s always going to be a more complex relationship because any post-colonial relationship is. When I was the British ambassador to Brazil, I could see the complex relationship between Portugal and Brazil. My wife is Portuguese but I was an observer. But here, you are in it. That brings great things. Look at the talent that has come from India to the UK in the last 75 years. That’s a product of a historic relationship from which the UK benefits enormously. Whether that is senior politicians on both sides of the two main political parties or ministers, whether it is intellectuals such as the president of the Royal Society (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan), who was born in Tamil Nadu, or the England cricket captain (Nasser Hussain) born in Chennai — that flow of people is a great thing. I have to be particularly conscious of what I say and do because I represent a country, which was once a colonial power. Sometimes, miscommunication can grow fast. What I’d like to do more of is to update people in the UK to really understand the reality of India today. I’d like more British people to come here not just as tourists, but also as tech entrepreneurs or researchers. It’d be great for people to see how fast India is changing.
Shubhajit Roy: When the new UK PM Liz Truss, was here in the capacity of Secretary, there was a sense of divergence that India showed, especially on Russia. Would the kind of divergence stay, now that she has become the Prime Minister?
Ellis: PM Truss has been to India more times than any other cabinet minister. She came here three times in just over 15 months. As Trade Secretary, she was fundamental in launching the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations. She was very clear in her ambition. India has been absolutely a top priority and central to the UK’s interests. In that sense, it’s following through on what the government said. In our integrated review — a review of our overall international strategy and spending decisions, India was absolutely on top. She spoke to PM Modi within days of becoming the leader. She is absolutely clear about where our strategic priorities lie. And I think the Indian government has responded very clearly to that. Secondly, on Russia and Ukraine, when Truss came as the foreign secretary she was absolutely crystal clear that she was not going to lecture anybody, certainly not the Indian government. Jaishankar’s comments were in response to a journalist, not what Truss said as foreign secretary. Any mature partnership of the future is able to deal with issues on which we disagree.
Shubhajit Roy: Boris Johnson had set Diwali as the deadline for the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Where are the negotiations between the two sides? Do you think it’s a realistic deadline?
Ellis: According to the joint statement, a majority of the negotiations will be done by the end of October. We are now into steep slopes, the hard bit of mountaineering. We’re going to climb this mountain together. It’s not a competition. I think both sides are clearing their political framework to get into the tough stuff. I saw the political will on both sides to do the deal. There are good economic and strategic reasons for it. The FTA are ways, not ends. The end is the prosperity of India and the UK. The ability to create jobs in the two countries… Traditionally, Indian negotiators were known to be very defensive. But I see a renewed ambition and confidence now.
Shubhajit Roy: What are the nuances and changes in Truss’ approach towards India, vis-a-vis Boris Johnson?
Ellis: PM Johnson was pretty ambitious already about what he wanted in the partnership. With the government coming out of the European Union, and you see it through the integrated review, it was very clear that India was going to be one of the top priorities, and PM Johnson was very consistent about it. Even in the middle of the worst of the second wave, Johnson and Modi met virtually and agreed on a detailed roadmap about how the UK can be the first comprehensive strategic partner in Europe. The roadmap had follow-ups across several areas, including climate change, training investments, defence, and security. PM Modi came here in April. Truss straight went on the phone with him. It is appreciated by the Indian system that she is putting India on a top priority and has done since she started as trade secretary.
Shubhajit Roy: The Indo-Pacific strategy of the UK was outlined in that integrated review, which talked about tilt. Is the tilt is going to be sharper towards Indo-Pacific, especially with China’s aggressive posturing in Taiwan Straits? Would the UK take a more vocal role in its India partnership?
Ellis: The review saw a more competitive world, which would have to work closely with partners and allies; where science, data, and technology will be more fundamental to our international power. Increases in defence expenditure and security expenditure — these are spending decisions that came out of the integrated review. Also, we’re getting out of the world of Iraq and Afghanistan and into a more permanent presence, especially in the Indo-Pacific. We have several points of presence already in the Indo-Pacific stretching from East Africa, the Middle East, through to Brunei. The efforts are also there in research, scholarships, and political relationships, as we come up with the current policies and negotiate trade agreements with India. So there’s an opportunity here.
Shubhajit Roy: The AUKUS deal was read by many as taking a more militaristic approach in the Indo-Pacific vis-a-vis the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which doesn’t have a pronounced security approach. Do you think it’s a fair assessment?
Ellis: No. What is different about this region, Indo-Pacific, from Europe is that it doesn’t have dominant fixed alliances. It doesn’t have NATO. I think it will. NATO comes out of a very particular circumstance, essentially, after the World War II, and with Soviet aggression and control of European countries or absorption of some into the Soviet Union. I believe those countries to be independent and free today. Estonia, for example. The Indo-Pacific doesn’t have that. It’s a different place, different history, different style. So what you have is a patchwork of different joint-working in different ways, which sits underneath these overall strategic objectives. India has these strategic objectives and so do we. The Quad is one of those bits of that patchwork. AUKUS is another one. It has to sit within a broad overall context of development too.
Shubhajit Roy: Be it the Khalistan referendum or violence against the Indian community, there are repeated issues that come up with respect to Pakistan. A private motion is tabled in the Parliament on Kashmir and it becomes a big story here. Why is the shadow of Pakistan predominant and how do you negotiate that?
Ellis: I don’t think it is as predominant as it once was. You have to separate between the story, which is your business, and what the governments do, which is our business. India has a relationship with Pakistan, a complex one, which is for India to manage. The UK has a complex relationship with Pakistan, which has changed quite a lot over the last few years, as we withdraw from Afghanistan. Our focus has shifted towards India. I keep saying: it is Indo-Pac with a ‘c’ rather than Indo-Pak with a ‘k’. There will always be issues in any bilateral relationship. There are issues within Europe and the UK. The 10-year roadmap works on climate change, sustainability, trade and investment, defence and security, and people-to-people links. Those are the things we want to do.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How do you view Truss’ new economic package, the tax cuts, and deferring of tax raises — the IMF is issuing almost a warning that it would kick off inflation, triggering bigger concerns of even ratings.
Ellis: The UK economy is going through something which most advanced economies, particularly in Europe, are going through, which is a relatively long period of low-wage growth since the financial crisis in 2008. That’s happening all across the developed world. Inflation is partly caused by Russia invading Ukraine, and the spiked energy prices are partly caused by the sort of return of the strong demand after COVID and tightness in the labour market. I can’t speak for other European countries but the UK has pretty low unemployment and a high labour market. In the UK, you have a new leader of the Conservative Party and therefore a new PM, who said that she was running on lower tax and pushing for growth. So that’s what she is doing. It’s premature to judge what the outcome of that will be. The government is responding to people expecting a new way of growing by lowering, or not allowing increases in corporation tax, and not increasing taxes on wages, which also should be of interest to Indian investors in the UK.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: When you have fixed inflation targets for the central bank, do you see more friction between the monetary authorities and the fiscal authorities on these things?
Ellis: It’s interesting that the monetary authority in the UK intervenes to buy some UK debts over a short period of time as a kind of market stabilisation measure. So that’s kind of about market stability, rather than inflation, per se. That debate will continue. I think that the UK is going into a period of higher inflation than usual. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts for growth was about three per cent this year, which is pretty good for a developed economy with roughly $40,000 per capita. We’ll see how it plays out. You have the interplay essentially between interest rates and inflation. But the UK economy needs to find new ways to grow, and stimulate a kind of dynamism.
Vandita Mishra: Do you think the perceived reorienting of the Britain-India relationship — courting of the Hindu vote by the British government, shift of that vote from Labour to Conservative rcently, and aggressive nationalism in India with the rise of the BJP gave rise to Leicester violence?
Ellis: The UK-India relationship is the product of the rise of India — economically and its internationalisation. Secondly, it is a much more competitive and contested world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Thirdly, the UK, having left the EU, is forging new relationships with new tools. We can do things on trade policy, and migration, which we couldn’t do as members of the European Union. So it’s one set of things. The second set of things is with Pakistan. We are de-hyphenating. Then there’s what goes on in the UK where you have seen some incidents in Leicester, in particular, by British people. You have seen tension and some violence between young men in one particular town, which gets addressed by the police and then by the courts as necessary. We have a clear legal framework, including hate speech, and obviously, there’s no place for a crime in the UK. And we apply those principles and laws without fear or favour to anyone. It strikes me as something which people in Leicester are much better able to explain, understand and deal with than the British High Commissioner to India.
Aakash Joshi: There is a Cold War mentality on Ukraine and climate change. India has thus far managed to not have to declare a side, especially in the context of Ukraine. Do you think it will become more and more difficult for both the UK and India to negotiate on the big ticket issues on the international stage?
Ellis: Climate change is a good example of not the Cold War. The countries of the world can come together to try to reduce the harmful effects of climate change by 1.5 or 2 per cent. PM Modi’s saying that we’re going to be net zero by 2070. This is very ambitious. If there’s a discussion, it’s about the speed of transition, not about the direction or the endpoint.
On Russia-Ukraine. A large autocratic country invades its democratic neighbour, then shoots a lot of people and forces politicians to create sham referenda. It’s doing terrible harm to Ukraine. There is no justification for it. And it is doing harm to the world more generally, through increased food prices and energy prices. PM Modi put it well. He said this is not an era of war, it’s an era of peace. Minister Jaishankar spoke about the extreme concern about the developments inside Ukraine. I agree with what the Indian spokespeople have said consistently about the importance of the UN Charter regarding sovereignty and territorial integrity. The countries which feel physically closest to the Russian threat respond the most. Those countries and my country are in an alliance where we are prepared to die for each other as a defensive alliance against aggression. It’s not surprising that you’ll have a coordinated response from that alliance and from other countries.
Shubhajit Roy: As for India’s position on Russia-Ukraine, many would say it is linked to India’s dependence on Russia and the diversification of its defence strategy. It seems the US, France, and Israel are much more proactive as compared to the UK. Why?
Ellis: India is diversifying fast. The UK is very keen to be a part of that diversification and indigenisation. The UK has historically been very involved in defence with India. We’ve been working with the Indian government on its engines, what we would call future combat airforce, where the UK has high expertise. It might be in the maritime sphere as well, particularly in the western Indian Ocean.There’s security too, where you have rapid growth of cooperation between the two countries.