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India and the UK are weatherproofing bilateral ties

The broken windows of the Indian High Commission in London have deliberately not been repaired seven months after they were smashed by violent pro-Khalistanprotestors. The shards they left behind after bringing down the Tricolour on the mission’s balcony are still visible to the tens of thousands of people who daily pass by the London landmark of Aldwych, in the middle of which sits the historic foreign policy edifice.

The decision of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to not destroy stark evidence of the United Kingdom’s inability to safeguard a diplomatic mission it is duty bound to protect, is intended to shame the host country and those among its public with a conscience.

Notwithstanding such a thoughtful and well-considered decision, India and the United Kingdom are working overtime both publicly and privately to ensure that their bilateral relations do not hit a slippery slope as in India-Canada relations under very similar circumstances.

The most visible effort since the March 19 attack on the High Commission to insulate India-British relations from any further deterioration was the convening on October 16 of the ‘India-UK 2+2 Foreign and Defence Dialogue’ in New Delhi. The paramount initiative to provide medium-term future direction to ties between the two countries is an Indian outreach to the opposition Labour Party, and vice versa. The outreach, which is ongoing — and going well, according to multiple sources involved in the process — was initially undercover but was outed in June.

Primarily, it reflects the considered assessment in New Delhi that the Labour Party will win the next general election in the UK scheduled to take place in January 2025. It could be held earlier, given the recent and frequent tremors in British politics. The presumptionthat Labour will be victorious in 2025 is widely shared in the UK. In the last three months, the ruling Conservative Party has lost four seats in by-elections.

It would be impolitic for India to give even a hint that it has concluded that the UK is poised for a change of government at the hustings. Additionally, UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is of Indian origin: any attempt by New Delhi to go behind his back and work out a modus vivendi with his opponents could have a domestic backlash in India.

Like the Indian government, the Labour Party leadership too wants to keep its outreach to India low-key nowfor two reasons. One is the party’s large following among pro-Khalistan Sikhs and Mirpuri Kashmiris from Pakistan-occupied parts of the state, both solid vote banks. The other reason is the party’s reluctance to demonstrate overconfidence that its victory in 2025 is a given. Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer modestly said last weekend after his party won two by-elections: “I don’t want to get carried away. Every single vote on this journey has to be earned.”

The surprise in the 2+2 Foreign and Defence Dialogue was not in its timing, composition, or content. The true surprise was that it was the first such dialogue with the UK. It took place five years after launching the 2+2 Dialogue with the US at the ministerial level. It could convene only among officials in Britain’s case. On the other hand, India also has ministerial dialogues in the 2+2 formatwith Russia, Japan, and Australia.

Detractors of India-British relations on both sides could find no fault with a mutual conversation on foreign and defence policies. It will not be bedevilled by disputes or controversies, unlike any dialogue between South Block and Whitehall on mobility, trade, or immigration.

The UK, which has a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, is clearly taking the cue from the deepening ties between Washington and New Delhi. Starmer admitted in June that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gala State visit to the US had impacted how the UK looks at India. “There are opportunities here as well – new technologies, new industries, new investments, where our interests clearlyalign.

A hopeful sign at the 2+2 Dialogue from both sides was their stress on an‘India-UK Roadmap 2030’, the most ambitious plan in recent times to revitalise bilateral ties. It was adopted in 2021 by Modi and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but Johnson’stroubles, departure,and subsequent political instability in the UK have meant that those plans languished.

The October 16 meeting, and others, will hopefully revive what was envisaged two-and-a-half years ago, and prepare the ground for continuity even if the UK government changes in the next election.

(KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 27 October 2023, 05:14 IST)

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