British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations next month is expected to impart a new momentum to bilateral ties that have long struggled to realise their full potential. While India’s partnerships with many Western countries, including the US and France, historically far less connected to India than Britain, have surged, the ties between Delhi and London continued to stagnate. Despite the intensive engagement between the peoples of India and Britain, impressive advances of the Indian diaspora in the British establishment, and substantive commercial relations, Delhi and London could not find that political trick that would reinvent bilateral relations.
Part of that trick was for Delhi and London to discard the colonial baggage that hobbled bilateral ties. Britain’s diplomatic activism on the Kashmir question, some of it driven by Pakistani diaspora in the UK, was for India an unacceptable intervention in its internal affairs. London’s Nelson eye to Pakistan’s support to religious extremism, terrorism and anti-India groups on British soil, made matters worse. Delhi also saw Britain’s role in Afghanistan as facilitating Pakistan’s interests rather than regional peace. South Block increasingly chose to ignore Britain as a lost cause. But realists in the Narendra Modi government began to ask an important question. If India could transcend the Pakistan factor in its engagement with the US and the Gulf, why can’t it be done with Britain? They noted Britain’s place as the world’s fifth largest economy, London’s role as a major financial centre, UK’s deep strength on a range of technologies including artificial intelligence and biotechnology, rich scientific and educational resources, and enduring diplomatic influence in distant corners of the world, including in the Indian Ocean. Put simply, the theory of the realist case was that a deep partnership with Britain was both possible and valuable.
As Delhi made a determined bid to find a fix for the “British Question”, London, too, was compelled to take a fresh look at Delhi. As Britain prepared to disconnect from the European Union, ended the infatuation with China, and sought to recalibrate its foreign and economic policies, India inevitably loomed as a natural partner. More immediately, London began to show greater sensitivity to Delhi’s security concerns and set the stage for a new beginning. After their extended talks in Delhi on Tuesday, the visiting of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar talked of progress in drafting a bold roadmap to transform bilateral relations over the next decade. Among the elements of the new framework are connecting people, trade and prosperity, defence and security, climate change and health. If all goes well, Johnson’s visit next month could turn out to be the moment when India and Britain shed the resentments and attitudes inherited from the colonial era to construct a partnership based on equality and mutual benefit.