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In unfolding era of strategic convergence, India and Britain are exploring shared possibilities, deepening engagement

The public bonhomie that marked talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, is in tune with the expansive ambition that marks bilateral engagement and the rapid progress on a range of issues.

Johnson did not refer to Ukraine; nor did he criticise India in his separate presser. While Modi did not condemn the Russian invasion, he reiterated India’s call for an immediate ceasefire and underlined its emphasis on respect for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations.

In modern diplomacy, optics may not always reflect the substance of the negotiations between leaders. But the public bonhomie that marked talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, is in tune with the expansive ambition that marks bilateral engagement and the rapid progress on a range of issues including trade, defence, advanced technologies, clean energy, climate change, and regional collaboration. Modi noted the special personal contribution of Johnson to the modernisation of bilateral relations. Johnson called the Indian PM a “khaas dost” or a dear friend.

Persistent prickliness marked the post colonial ties between the two governments until recently. But in the 75th year of independence, the unprecedented comfort level between the top leaders underlines the growing convergence of interests between Delhi and London and a serious political commitment to translate the shared interests into concrete outcomes. In the run-up to Johnson’s twice postponed visit, the international chatter was all about the differences on the war in Ukraine sinking the British PM’s visit. While the two leaders briefed each other on their respective views on the crisis, Indian officials say there was no pressure from Britain. In the joint press conference, Johnson did not refer to Ukraine; nor did he criticise India in his separate presser. While Modi did not condemn the Russian invasion, he reiterated India’s call for an immediate ceasefire and underlined its emphasis on respect for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations.

The two leaders had more on their plate than Ukraine. At the top of the agenda is the effort to conclude an agreement on Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP). Johnson wants to get the deal done by Diwali and Modi promised that India will demonstrate the same speed and urgency that it did in concluding recent free trade agreements with the UAE and Australia in recent months. Complementing the political push for a historic trade liberalisation agreement is the decision by the two leaders to deepen bilateral defence and security cooperation. While India welcomed Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt, Britain has announced the decision to ease the transfer of defence equipment and technology for India. The two sides are also determined to begin joint research, development and production of advanced weapons and related technologies. Modi and Johnson also issued a statement on strengthening their partnership in the cyber domain to deliver results on governance, deterrence, resilience and capacity building. Beyond defence, security and advanced technologies, they announced plans to boost cooperation on mitigating climate change and promoting clean energy.

Tying all these initiatives across a broad spectrum is the determination to strengthen the “living bridge” between the two nations — marked not only by a large Indian diaspora in Britain but also the immense possibilities for collaboration between various sectors of the two civil societies. These possibilities never disappeared in the immediate decades after India’s independence from Britain 75 years ago; but they could not be harnessed because of major political differences between the two nations. But in the unfolding era of strategic convergence, the massive bridge between India and Britain is coming alive.

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First published on: 23-04-2022 at 03:58 IST
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