On the flight to Ahmedabad, the British press pack accompanying Boris Johnson had one topic above all that they wanted to ask the Prime Minister about when they were ushered up to the front of the plane. Was it how robust Boris would be with Narendra Modi about their very different stands on the Ukraine conflict? Or whether he could speed up the negotiations on the much-touted Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the UK and India?
The Big Talking Point Was 'Partygate'
No; the big talking point was ‘partygate’, the scandal that continues to bedevil Boris Johnson’s leadership. He was recently fined £50 for a personal breach of the anti-COVID restrictions his own government introduced. There may well be more fines to come for the Prime Minister’s attendance at social gatherings at Downing Street, which flouted the then-current social distancing rules. Johnson has apologised, but these transgressions have damaged his personal standing and allowed the opposition Labour Party to take a commanding lead in the opinion polls.
The British Prime Minister’s visit to India has been postponed twice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was talk of yet another delay because of ‘partygate’ – Members of Parliament in London will be having a vote on the issue while the Prime Minister is away.
'We Always Raise the Difficult Issues'
For Boris Johnson, the big attraction of a visit to India is that it gets him out of Westminster for a couple of days. It’s a chance for him to be seen as a statesman and a key figure on the global stage rather than being mired in a controversy. Johnson will express concern about India’s reluctance to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – but he won’t make a big deal of the issue. He may also urge Delhi to show more urgency in becoming carbon neutral and addressing the climate change crisis.
There will also be at least a mention of the human rights situation in India, the concerns of some religious minorities, and the erosion of press freedom. “We always raise the difficult issues,” Johnson said while visiting a factory in Gujarat on Thursday. But he won’t allow that to sour the talks or imperil his main goal.
The most pressing issue for Boris Johnson is progress on a trade deal. This would be a big feather in his post-Brexit cap. Leaving the European Union (EU) was supposed to prepare the ground for a series of bespoke free trade deals between Britain and its major trading parties. That simply hasn’t happened. The biggest prize – an agreement with the United States – isn’t in prospect. An agreement with India would be a big prize.
The talks got fully underway only in January, but Johnson’s goal is to finalise a deal within the next six months. That’s ambitious, not least because negotiators will have to navigate around what is still a protectionist instinct in Delhi. Britain will also need to be more generous in its visa regime, cut visa fees, expand work opportunities for Indian students in the UK and be more reciprocal in recognising Indian professional qualifications.
This goes against the British government’s instinct to restrict immigration, but some concessions are likely. Johnson said this week that Britain has “massive shortages” of skilled workers, including “experts in IT and programmers”, which sounds like an invitation to Indian IT companies to expand their UK operations.
Boris' Visit to Kyiv Had Gone Well
Boris Johnson will hold talks with Modi in Delhi on Friday after spending a day in Gujarat meeting industrialists and talking up opportunities for investment and economic cooperation. He has become the first British head of government to visit Gujarat, a choice influenced by the state’s economic performance as well as a reflection of the importance of the large Gujarati community in the UK and, inescapably, a sign of respect towards Narendra Modi’s home state.
The British leader will be hoping that his talks go as well as those in his last overseas trip. Boris Johnson took the courageous step of visiting Kyiv earlier this month to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine and to discuss with President Volodymyr Zelensky continued support, both military and humanitarian, in the face of the Russian onslaught. Zelensky’s warm words of appreciation both for British support and for Boris Johnson’s personal role were a very welcome boost.
Johnson will be hoping for a similar – if smaller – political dividend from his talks in Delhi. At the moment, he needs all the help he can get to restore his political authority.
There is one topic that the British Prime Minister may be too shy to raise with his Indian counterpart but which is certainly on his mind: any good tips on how to secure a second election victory?
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)