ndia's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with his Britain's counterpart Boris Johnson. (AFP)
It was undoubtedly a measure of the international assessment of Boris Johnson’s government that the pound sterling plummeted to its lowest level against the dollar since 2020 while he was scattering "Narendras" like confetti on his "khas dost", our own Prime Minister, and being photographed in an ornate Hindu temple flanked by seven barefoot men, presumably sadhus, in saffron robes and turbans.
Not that the British Prime Minister’s hand of friendship is to be spurned, especially not when he appears to be promising India a privileged alliance like those with Russia and China. If that sounds contradictory, it’s part of the enigma of a journalist-turned-politician of considerable charm and persuasive skill who was Theresa May’s loyal lieutenant until he ditched her to take her job.
The astute principle ("I don’t think it’s the job of one country to preach to another") that Mr Johnson mentioned on Indian television offered an important clue to his strategy for winning friends and influencing people and the dexterous balancing act with Russia, China and India. Instead, he tries to spin a charkha squatting on the floor and boasts of being the first Conservative Prime Minister to visit Mr Modi’s home state. Yet, if ever two countries were natural allies, they are India and Britain, and not only because both are now to some extent under American tutelage.
However, Indians looking for all-weather friends and support in Ladakh cannot forget Mr Johnson’s "I am no Sinophobe -- very far from it" to Bloomberg, and adding: "I’m not going to tell you that the UK government is going to pitchfork away every overture from China." Of course not. China is Britain’s third largest trading partner while India is the 17th. Queen Elizabeth II lavished board and lodging at Buckingham Palace on President Xi Jinping whereas Mr Modi merited only a lunch. But beleaguered in "Londongrad" -- a nickname alluding to Russian money’s high presence in London, of which more later -- neither can Mr Johnson turn up his nose at India’s vast market or its geopolitical significance for the Indo-Pacific region. Certainly not after the hopes of the world rushing to deal with Britain after Brexit collapsed long before the war that is now savaging Ukraine.
Mr Johnson can claim special rights in India (only if presented with the utmost tact of course) because so much here has been assimilated from the colonial era that it is sometimes difficult to tell where Britain stops and India begins. History is reinforced by 1.4 million Indian-origin people (around 2.5 per cent of the population of England and Wales) comprising the largest ethnic group there after whites. In those years when Britain knocked in vain at Europe’s closed door, some European leaders explained in private that even Britain’s whites had undergone cultural mutation during their long association with India. Mr Johnson’s Turkish ancestry and the half-Sikh QC to whom he was married for 25 years may have contributed further to the glibness that enabled him smoothly to gloss over India’s independent position on Russia which irritates other Western powers, notably the United States.
The sterling’s instability was not the only problem brewing at home. While what has been dubbed "Partygate" still threatens his job, other issues cloud the horizon. There was -- and is -- the question of Rishi Sunak, his ethnic Indian chancellor of the exchequer, taking advantage of a loophole in British law so that his wife Akshata, the daughter of Infosys founder, N.R. Narayana Murthy, and reportedly richer than Queen Elizabeth II herself, could have the best of all worlds. There also was -- and is -- his home secretary Priti Patel and her dogged resistance to immigration from Asia, betraying the established but nevertheless insecure immigrant’s resentment of new arrivals. It’s a global phenomenon.
Australia had to be persuaded to lower the drawbridge to some extent; the United States still treats waiting queues on the Mexican border scandalously; and Indian Singaporeans are most critical of increased migration from India.
The outrageous plan to send those who seek asylum in Britain to Rwanda, where more than 75,000 Congolese refugees are already languishing in camps, not just for their papers to be processed but also resettlement, is probably a collective decision. Nothing could be more callous.
The world hasn’t forgotten that in just 100 blood-soaked days in 1994, Rwanda’s ethnic majority Hutus slaughtered 800,000 people, mainly the minority Tutsis but also political opponents irrespective of ethnicity. That massacre makes the Russian barbarity in Ukraine seem almost like a tea party. Transferring asylum-seekers to such a place almost sounds like another Guantanamo Bay beyond the protection of civilised law.
Post-Brexit Britain, trying to go it alone, cannot afford to ignore any possible source of comfort, especially with retail sales falling alarmingly and investment dwindling. Hence the ambivalence that may suit India but exposes the reliance on Chinese investment and Russian oligarchs with links to Vladimir Putin who buy right of residence by promising to invest in Britain. A 2009 book, Londongrad: From Russia with Cash; The Inside Story of the Oligarchs, by Mark Hollingsworth and Stewart Lansley, tells the dazzling tale of these financial buccaneers who made colossal fortunes after Communism collapsed in Russia, and settled in London to enjoy their new-found wealth. They include Alexander Lebedev at whose Italian villa Mr Johnson was reportedly a guest in 2018 and whom he has since ennobled. Lord Lebedev’s father, a former KGB agent, is co-owner of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Russia, while he himself owns Britain’s Independent and Evening Standard newspapers.
Mr Johnson would be the first to repeat, and rightly too, that domestic characteristics have little bearing on foreign policy. But history, not least of the British empire, shows that the internal does have a way of influencing the external. Moreover, the close interaction between India and Britain is possible only because of India’s deep understanding of and sympathy for Britain’s dilemma. It gives no pleasure here to be reminded that Dean Acheson’s observation -- that "Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role" -- remains as true under Boris Johnson as when it was made in 1962. But he might yet be able to smooth things over if the proposed free trade agreement grants Indians more British visas in return for India importing more Scotch.