Sir Dominic Asquith, the British High Commissioner to India, has seen ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries in his two years in Delhi. A Middle East expert, this career diplomat from a renowned British family has taken to India, making it a point to even spend his vacations in the country. Asquith spoke to The Indian Express about the bilateral relations and his personal experiences in India. Excerpts:
Where is India situated in the current world view of the UK, particularly post-Brexit?
Everybody recognises the shift of gravity to the east from the west, and India is at the heart of it, with China, Russia and the whole of Indo-Pacific. That shift means people have to adapt: we are adapting, India is adapting and China is, that process of adaptation to the environment, particularly a very complex and uncertain environment, will take time. It is a bit awkward, to be honest, and given the history, ambitions and size of India, it is at the centre of this gravity. It is going through the process of working out what its role will be. In that context of an uncertain world, what is very important for us and for India is that we work out how two countries, who share fundamentally the same values, how they manage that adaptation.
The key values they share is of following a rule-based international system, they are two democracies, a sense of tolerance, a sense of respect for everyone, facilitating easier trade, investment and getting economies going, and upholding the international institutions. That sort of context means collaboration has to be very resilient, because we are going to have not always identical priorities and interests, but unquestionably complementary ones. It is working out how you do things that complement each other, priorities and interests. It is working out together something that pursues the idea that was very much part of Mr Modi’s discussion in London, which is India and the UK being part of a global force for the good.
What do you mean by complementing each other, is it about reconciling divergences?
No, I don’t think there are divergences. As opposed to being identical, they will be reflecting realities – India is a neighbor of China and has particular interest about how it manages that relationship. It has very large amount depends on China, on what China is up to, those are very immediate on India’s doorsteps. So, the immediacy of the problem requires a rather nuanced approach. We have particular concerns about what Russia is doing in Crimea, and in terms of cyber, that is very immediate for us, not so immediate for India in its set of priorities. Upholding rules-based International system is common, how you go about it, similarly with trade and investment, or the type of industries which India feels it needs to protect at this stage of economic growth. Tradition, culture and on human rights, not a difference of principles but it is really important how you do it.
India rejected the UN Human Rights report on Kashmir, Pakistan hailed it. Where does the UK stand on India-Pakistan relations, particularly on Kashmir?
In terms of India, Pakistan and Kashmir, our position remains what it was. It is an issue between these two countries, which are very important to us, but we are not going to intervene in an issue between the two countries. In terms of Kashmir itself, what is important to us is the continuation of the efforts the government is engaged in, in trying to get a sustainable, permanent solution to what is going on there. We support those efforts.
With global trade relations under stress, how will India-UK trade be affected?
I am going to take a bigger context. First part is the values of the two countries, bilateral trade is part of it. What Mr Modi called the living bridge. the most important way of describing it is explaining the importance of UK to India and India to UK. At the top of that list is trade and investment relationship between the two countries. We remain the largest G20 investor in India, British companies here invest almost double in India of what French and German companies do… Last year, increase in service and goods trade both was 15%.
So we look at a lot of that trade and investment data but that reinforces a much more human interaction. That explains why we issue more business visas to Indians than to the whole world combined… There is a whole mass of texture of institutional and individual links between UK and India. Those are not generated at the government level, but at the institutional level and they are done because they are beneficial to both to solve some common problems.
What then puzzles me is when I see reports over the last week about visas or bilateral relationship hitting a new low… that people should be writing about one tiny aspect, whether or not Indian students get what terms they have. Here is the important thing: the terms being offered to Indian students this year are no different from they were last year. Last year, to our delight, we saw 30% more students going to the UK.
The complaint is that you are treating them at a lower level.
We are not treating them at any level but as they were being treated before. We see a lot of universities coming here through the year. This has nothing to do with creating obstacles.
Has anyone in the Indian government approached you on the student visa issue?
I tend not to talk about my exchanges with the government, but on this occasion I will say no, nobody has. No doubt they will now (laughs). I am surprised no one talks about the 14,000 students who do masters in the UK and come back, and that qualification is not recognised in India.
Over the last two years, what has really surprised you about India?
Wherever I go, I find some sort of link between the two countries, whether personal, family or institutional, in some way. That is genuinely surprising. The second thing that fascinates me is the ambition to use technology in rural and urban areas is huge. That is why tech partnership was at the top of the list during Mr Modi’s visit to London. It is about the extraordinary use of technology which is collaborative.
The Aadhaar system which is unique in the world, India has the biggest data set in the world and growing at a phenomenal pace. One of the most important things is the security of that data. Who is best at that? The Israelis and the Americans may think that they are good but we are also very good. In fact, that is an area, technological collaboration, which is high priority for us.
You spoke about Aadhaar but your country junked the personal id project completely…
There is a development of the debate in the UK, from what I can see, we are very interested in the possibilities about Aadhaar and very keen on working with Indian developers. So, who knows where that collaboration and partnership might lead?
You have spent decades in the Middle East before coming here. Do you see any similarities in India and the ME?
The big similarity is the demography. I always felt a lot just how young societies in the middle east were, changing ambitions, changing habits, the way they connected with the world, the way they viewed the political elite. I think I see a bit of similarity here. It is a really good, vibrant approach to the world. But it comes with a huge challenge: if you have got such a large set of young people with ambitions, you have to find ways to address those.
There is talk about Indian fugitives finding shelter in the UK, like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi. What do you say to the criticism that these people continue to live there?
In terms of London being awash with corrupt money and so on, I’d contest that hotly. The city of London is a massive centre for generating investments globally. It is really important to us to ensure that illegal funds are not circulating there…. In terms of managing the particular cases —and I am not going to talk in detail at all — we have a judicial system we are extremely proud of. It may seem a bit protracted to an Indian audience, though to be fair, they have a legal system which is quite protracted as well. But scrupulous adherence to judicial process is part of our democracy.
The Crown Prosecution Service which is handling the case of Mallya has earned praise from the Indian authorities about how they are going about it. The courts are going scrupulously over it, the banks have taken the orders from the judges… the handling of the case cannot be faulted for the judicial process or in the respect the process. If it has taken longer than Indians would like, I can point that that is the way judicial process works in many, many countries. The seriousness with which we address both the handling the cases or charges that are set, speaks for itself.
One more thing. These frauds were committed in India. We are not responsible for the fraud. We are dealing with after-effects of a fraud and we are serious about it.