UK Prime Minister Theresa May chose India for her first overseas trip outside of the European Union. As she landed in Delhi on Sunday night, she appears to have run straight into the infamous Delhi smog which had reduced visibility.
A similar fog interfered with the clarity of the perception about mutual relations between the two countries. Not to be surprised, from the start, the visit appears to have been marked by this difference in perception and divergent direction.
Theresa May arrived in India with her baggage of restrictive visa rules for Indians going to the UK. During her time in the British Home Office, May had withdrawn the facility of post-study work visas for Indian students going to UK universities. That single step saw Indian student arrivals in the UK come down drastically from over 60,000 before the restrictive visa regime to just around 10,000 currently. As the author of that draconian system, May can only be expected to stick to her guns.
She did. She had claimed during her chat with British journalists accompanying her on her special aircraft that the visa rules were working fine for Indians. Out of ten applications from Indians, seven were accepted, she had claimed. Of course, the applications had dropped from sixty to ten over the last few years, and it would be easy to take seven of them.
As if to deflect attention from a real issue, May offered special visa regime for high net worth Indians. In a typical British twist of words, May called it a Great Club -- a kind of “bespoke” or tailored visa regime for the wealthy and their families. At any rate, the super rich are already enjoying such facilities in many other places, and they can afford to get around even without a Great Club Visa offer. Go to any other country with a million dollars to invest, and you can get instant citizenship, let alone a visa. After all, money speaks.
But for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this did not appear to have cut much ice. He had raised the issue of visa for Indian students in no uncertain words. He pointed out to the visiting dignitary that education is vital to India and its students and special visa requirements of Indian student community was very much a priority for the government. May may or may not have taken note of it. But her hopes for a high-profile breakthrough with India on various counts now appear to be a distant dream.
British differences came out in other areas. Indian Prime Minister pointed out that it is not only trading in goods that was significant between the two countries. Goods trade between India and UK was at any rate of not much count. Turnover was small and cannot realistically be expected to jump substantially whether Britain remained in or out of the EU. After all, what market did Britain still have for most of the goods that India would like to export? Not much.
It is not India that is keenly looking forward to concluding a free trade agreement with the UK but the reverse. Britain needs access to markets elsewhere when it goes out of EU.
Narendra Modi had harped on services trade than only goods trade that May had on her agenda. That is because, for Modi, services trade meant the freer movement of skilled personnel.
Modi pointed out the need for body shopping in the course of his speech at a technology conference in the capital while May was seated on the dais. At the joint press conference as well Modi spelt out that the rules were counterproductive and urged for allowing movement of students as well as skilled workers. May responded with her demand that Indians residing in Britain without the right to do so, must return expeditiously before anything of that kind could be considered.
Although Theresa May flew in with a bandwagon of company officials, it does not appear to have made much of an impact either.
If the substance was lacking in the India-UK talks on Monday, what was not missing was superlatives. Both sides were giving a mouthful on the so-called special relationship between the two countries. Modi said that present India-UK cooperation in S&T was driven by “high impact” and “high quality” research initiatives. There was little indication available about these kinds of research activities.
Official MEA spokesman claimed that India-UK research programme was focusing on solar power and research relating to that. Another pet subject of the British establishment now, “Antimicrobial Resistance” initiative has also been included. This last effort could, admittedly, be of great significance in the future. Anti-microbial resistance is the phenomenon of developing resistance to antibiotics.
In fact, Britain had already instituted a committee to examine the implications of this development and among other Jim O’Neill, the person who had originally coined the phrase BRICS had now become the mouthpiece of the committee.
Work leading to a breakthrough in this sphere could mean massive benefits for humanity.
The visit passed off fairly routinely. Neither did the visitor offer much, nor did she get anything in return. Britain is set to exit the EU, and with that, it is again on course to becoming a Little England. May’s incremental efforts might not mean much in that context as far as relations with India are concerned.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)