Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’s thumping majority, the highest since 1987 during Margaret Thatcher’s time, is bound to give clarity to certain issues like Brexit and international relations with countries like India. Traditionally, Tory governments have always had better UK-India relations than Labour governments, barring the period when Tony Blair was the Labour Prime Minister. Ironically, though the Indian diaspora (now two percent of the population) had historically been committed Labour voters, the shift to the Right has been happening over the past several years.
The contradictions that lie within the India-UK relations became evident when a report was published earlier this year, which noted that while India was the UK’s second largest trading partner in 1998-99 during Blair’s time, it slipped to 17th position in 2018-19, during the Conservative government’s rule.
A large part of this downslide owes to Britain’s restrictive immigration policies which the Commons foreign affairs select committee described as the UK’s neglect of longstanding ties with India as an “expensive missed opportunity”.
Boris Johnson As PM: Good News for Indian Students?
In the backdrop of Brexit, the UK will need to build relationships outside the EU, for which it needs to become more open to overseas workers, students and tourists from countries like India. The report warned: “While the Global Britain strategy is barely being communicated in India, the ‘hostile environment’ message is being heard loud and clear.” It was a result of then Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy for post-Brexit trade, and her target to cut annual net migration to below 100,000. The coldness in the relationship was visible during May’s last visit to India. India made it clear it was not in a hurry to reach any trade deal with the UK without concessions on movement of people.
Boris Johnson was quick to notice that the number of Indian students coming to the UK halved from about 40,000 in 2009-10 to 20,000 in 2017-18 – far fewer than those opting to study in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
In September, he announced that international students would be able to stay and work in the UK for two years after graduating – a huge climbdown by the government which had previously restricted the period to four months.
While this is good news for Indian students looking to study in the UK, there is a surge within the IT industry and National Health Service looking to fill gaps by departing EU nationals. Johnson, during his election campaign, reiterated that he will end discriminatory visa rules that give the European Union ‘preferential treatment.’
Boris’s Plans to Boost Indian Tourism to UK
Acknowledging the 6.5 percent contribution to the GDP by the 2 percent Indian community residing in the UK, he said, “We can introduce the same immigration rules for everyone, whether they are coming from the EU or outside,” Boris Johnson said. Regarding professionals like doctors and nurses, he said that he plans to introduce a “special fast-track visa” that can be processed within two weeks.
Given his openminded views on visas, he expects to boost Indian tourism to the UK which had fallen as tourists were deterred by the cost and complexity of obtaining a UK visa, with France now more popular than Britain as a holiday destination.
The damage was worsened with India feeling it was being treated less favourably than China, which, under a UK pilot scheme introduced in 2016, gave Chinese nationals access to a multiple entry visa almost four times cheaper than that available to Indian citizens.
Way Forward for UK & Its Place in the World
On sensitive issues like Kashmir, the Conservatives have always maintained it is a ‘bilateral issue’ between India and Pakistan, unlike Labour which recently irked many of the Indian diaspora, by passing an emergency motion during its Party conference.
With this huge margin of victory, Johnson finds himself in a strong position to carry through some of his liberal policies vis-à-vis immigration, and even in his Brexit negotiations, many believe now he could move away from the far right European Research Group (ERG), and work towards a soft Brexit. As the political milieu has completely changed in this election with a weakened Labour, the coming weeks and months will define the place the UK wants to see itself in, on the world stage.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)