Richard North, 05/05/2021  

Having essentially turned his back on "Europe", it is indisputably the case that Johnson is putting all his money on creating new deals with the rest of the world. And, of those, the "jewel in the crown" is a deal with covid-wracked India, with whose leader, Narendra Modi, Johnson has just held a " virtual summit" – after his direct meeting had been abandoned.

The outcome of this "summit" – according to the Financial Times - is the agreements of a "2030 road map", setting the path to strengthened bilateral ties in key areas such as trade, education and defence.

London has also announced that the two countries have agreed investment deals, said to be worth almost £1 billion, and the two government have signed an agreement to clamp down on illegal migration and enhance opportunities for people to live and work in each other's countries.

Using as many big words as they could cobble together under the circumstances, the two parties are committing to boosting economic ties through a "new and transformational comprehensive strategic partnership", aiming to open up opportunities for business within sectors such as food and drink and life sciences by reducing trade barriers.

In theory, this will be achieved by measure which could include reducing non-tariff barriers on items such as fruit, and allowing medical devices to be exported between the UK and India more easily.

Says Johnson, in words that must have been written by the FCO: "The UK and India share many fundamental values. The UK is one of the oldest democracies, and India is the world's largest. We are both committed members of the Commonwealth. And there is a living bridge uniting the people of our countries".

He added: "This connection will only grow over the next decade as we do more together to tackle the world's biggest problems and make life better for our people. The agreements we have made today mark the beginning of a new era in the UK-India relationship".

Modi personal statement, however, seems to have been a briefer, less fulsome response. It merely described the meeting as "productive" and welcomed the "ambitious" road map.

Sandeep Chakravorty, the joint secretary for Europe west for India's ministry of external affairs, described the summit as "a new milestone" in bilateral relations, but added a somewhat downbeat coda, adds: "Both our leaders had substantive discussions … and exchanged views on regional and global issues of mutual interest".

Chakravorty, though, is not the only one to sound downbeat. Independent commentator Sean O'Grady questions Liz Truss's £1 billion investment, and claims of creating 6,000 jobs, asking how much would have have materialised if Truss and her department didn't exist, and whether it would have been different had the UK not left the EU.

O'Grady, though, also suggests that the Indian adventure begs some other post-Brexit questions. In the past, he says, British trade missions to India have faltered because the British – and in particular Theresa May – proved hostile to Indian requests to make it easier for young Indians to come to Britain to study and work.

Now that the UK has its own points-based immigration policy, that can change, he says. But a rapid increase in the number of visas for Indian students and professionals hasn't been a major feature of the new regime so far; if it had, the right wing of the Conservative Party might have made its displeasure known.

Nevertheless, he sees "encouraging noises from Westminster" about a mutually advantageous exchange of the brightest and best, but little sense of the scale of such movements. Taken with the likely arrival of the trading and professional classes from Hong Kong, some in Brexiteer circles might wonder if this is the low-migration Brexit they voted for.

He observes that trade with India is intimately linked to a more free movement of people between the UK and that country, just as it was with the EU. Thus, while the British have "taken back control" over their borders from Brussels, they are about to hand it over, in the perception of some, to Delhi.

On the other hand, Modi is as nationalist a leader as any in the world, and whatever sentimental feelings he may have about cricket and tea, he will put India’s interests first. He knows that Truss and Johnson are desperate for a flagship trade deal with a "big" country, and, with the US and China out of the picture, India is the only realistic prospect, at least for now.

Modi's negotiators, therefore, can be expected to drive a harder bargain with little Britain than even Michel Barnier did. The chances of the UK landing a favourable deal are remote.

And yet, it is not a foregone conclusion that Modi will be around to guide any negotiations. As India's coronavirus cases exceed 20 million, he is facing a growing backlash over his handling of the catastrophic second wave.

#ModiMustResign is trending strongly in an Indian social media, while feeds are filled with footage and photos of crowded cemeteries, dying patients being loaded onto stretchers, overrun hospitals and bodies being burned on makeshift pyres out in the open.

Despite his government "cracking down" on criticism, there are reports that Modi's complacency and lack of preparedness is having a significant impact. This is compounded by the mishandling of the vaccine rollout.

The country is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines, yet distribution centres were running short of supplies from April. Now there aren't nearly enough jabs to go around to the country’s 1.36 billion people. Despite that, India had exported more vaccines - 60 million doses to 76 countries - by late March than it administered to its own citizens.

A local expert says it's too early to determine whether India’s second wave will tarnish Modi's reputation for good. He has time to recover, as he doesn't have to go to the polls until 2024, and he is clever and relentless.

However, while Modi has taken the credit for the country's previous success at handling the first wave means that he must take responsibility for the current failure. It will be hard for him to escape that responsibility.

Modi, however, has a habit of announce drastic policy changes to draw attention away from crises. In previous situations like this, he has responded by perpetrating "acts of mass distraction" - sudden, unexpected, headline-grabbing policy initiatives.

One wonders whether the UK even features enough in the Indian consciousness for any trade negotiations to be the focus of one of those policy changes, but the very fact that Modi might be looking for something to keep minds off his Covid failures suggests that his approach to future talks could be unpredictable.

This might be even more so if the Indian prime minister gets deposed in the 2024 elections, or so severely weakened that he is forced into directions which might not favour the UK.

Unpredictability, therefore, is a key issue for the future, especially as opposition politicians are complaining that the Modi government has made India a "laughing stock" in the eyes of the world, with its thoughtless policies in tackling the coronavirus second wave.

In order for Modi to conclude politically tenable deal with the UK, he will have to pull something special out of the hat. This points to him pushing for more access for his countrymen to work in Britain. And Johnson, the Guardian says, knows that this is what Modi will expect from a deal. A Downing Street briefing paper noted that "mobility" will be India's "big ask" and a "sensitive issue".

That paper concludes that the UK government will have a choice: it can have a big bang trade deal with India or it can have tough immigration controls that make it hard for Indians to work in Britain. On this occasion, as with others, Johnson won't be able to have his cake and eat it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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