Could a Labour government forge a new strategic deal with India?

After reprimanding Rahul Gandhi for purportedly criticising Hindus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely found satisfaction in the recent statements by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer.
Could a Labour government forge a new strategic deal with India?

Dipak Kurmi

(The writer can be reached at dipakkurmiglpltd@gmail.com.)

After reprimanding Rahul Gandhi for purportedly criticising Hindus, Prime  Minister Narendra Modi likely found satisfaction in the recent statements by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer. Wasting no time, Sir Keir affirmed that “Hindu-phobia has no place in Britain.” Additionally, the accomplished lawyer, who soundly defeated Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, pledged to forge a “new strategic partnership with India.”

Rishi Sunak’s defeat likely resonated most deeply with his mother-in-law, Sudha Murthy, who resides in India and serves as a member of the Rajya Sabha. Sudha Murthy, known for proudly claiming credit for her husband, Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy’s success, also used to highlight how her daughter Akshata “had managed to make her husband Prime Minister of the UK.” This turn of events underscores the enduring relevance of the observation made by American politician Dean Acheson in 1962: having lost an empire, Britain still struggles to find its role in the world.

Across Britain, Nigel Farage of the Reform UK party wasn’t far off when he remarked on the lack of enthusiasm for the new Prime Minister. Despite the Labour Party’s sweeping victory, securing two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons with slightly more than one-third of the popular vote, the sentiment remains tepid. At 60 years old and after finally entering Parliament on his eighth attempt, Mr. Farage is determined to challenge Labour’s dominance.

Some members might be swayed by his persuasion, especially since the ideological lines that once set parties apart have blurred. This shift began when Tony Blair abandoned Labour’s long-standing commitment to mass nationalization, transforming the party into the vote-winning New Labour.

Critics of the shift, both then and likely now, argue that the party’s principles have become so indistinct that they could easily align with groups like the Liberal Democrats, Nigel Farage’s Reform UK with its mere four MPs, or even Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. The latter, according to Labour-supporting ethnic Indian life peer Ayesha, Baroness Hazarika, have presided over 14 years of “economic, social, and political vandalism.”

During this period, governance in Britain has declined under the leadership of five different prime ministers. The Conservative Party, comprising around 180,000 members, tends to represent individuals who are generally wealthier and older than the average citizen. There is a widespread belief—potentially unjust—that these members expect government financial policies and top state officials to prioritize their collective interests.

Rishi Sunak’s elite background, marked by costly boarding schools and an Oxford education, coupled with his substantial wealth—rumoured to surpass that of King Charles III—only bolstered his image as a plutocrat. His assets include a country house worth over £2 million, complete with extensive gardens and a lake. Sunak assumed office after Liz Truss, whose disastrous mini-budget in 2022 led to the resignations of both herself and her finance minister, Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng.

It was reported that Boris Johnson, who served as Prime Minister from 2019 to 2022, offered no assistance to Rishi Sunak as he navigated one crisis after another during his time in office.

During those months, investment declined, insufficient new jobs were generated, and the once-venerated National Health Service faced numerous complaints of delays and negligence. Additionally, rising inflation and sluggish economic growth were exacerbated by Brexit, which extricated Britain from the European Union. Initially celebrated as a panacea, Brexit now seems to have introduced more problems than it resolved, particularly by deepening the divides between the North and South and between the rich and poor.

While Rishi Sunak crafted several commendable economic revival plans, many of them ultimately failed to materialise.

Yet, as Britain’s youngest Prime Minister since 1812 at the age of 42 and the first man of colour—also a Hindu, taking his oath on the Bhagavad Gita—Rishi Sunak secured his place in history. Despite this distinction, he did not exhibit a particular affinity for India, his ancestral homeland. Perhaps constraints prevented him from doing so. Alongside colleagues like Suella Braverman, a staunch hardliner of Goan descent, there were subtle jabs from certain Britons insinuating that his non-English background rendered him unfit to govern England.

Race continues to be a sensitive topic. Recently, Sir Keir Starmer faced considerable criticism for suggesting that people arriving from Bangladesh should be sent back, sparking a significant backlash.

He may have been seeking reconciliation when he specifically chose to embrace Sadiq Khan, London’s ethnic Pakistani mayor, as his first gesture upon becoming Prime Minister-elect. Visiting North London’s Shree Swaminarayan Mandir in Kingsbury, he paid homage and expressed admiration for Hindu culture, even pledging to govern with a spirit of service (“seva”). These actions could have been seen as efforts to mend relations.

India’s relationship with Britain’s Labour Party has been complex. Historically, the party was associated with India’s independence movement, although Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s statements sometimes irked Indian audiences by implying he had granted India independence. However, Indians in influential positions believed Labour had become influenced by Islamic fundamentalists, leading to resentment over its positions on issues like Jammu and Kashmir and the Gujarat religious riots. Labour politicians were also accused of organizing violent protests outside India’s high commission in London, prompting the high commissioner to request police protection.

As India increasingly aligns itself with the West, particularly the United States, it becomes crucial to enhance its relationships with Europe, Japan, the European Union, and Britain. Sir Keir Starmer has emphasized the need for change, highlighting bilateral relations as a key area for improvement. The economic ties, with trade valued at £25 billion and India being the second-largest investor in Britain, creating over 8,600 new jobs, only scratch the surface of the deep and enduring social, cultural, and emotional bonds between the two nations. Despite these ties, India faces significant challenges, particularly from China, whose trade surplus with India continues to grow.

India and Britain have the opportunity to mutually revive stalled discussions on a free trade agreement, demonstrating equal flexibility. The British Prime Minister’s proposal for a new strategic partnership with India marks a potential resurgence of the close cooperation seen in their historic relationship.

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