Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Will Labour govt create a new India strategic deal?

Fresh from chastising Rahul Gandhi for allegedly attacking Hindus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was no doubt elated when Britain’s new Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, lost little time in declaring that “there is absolutely no place for Hindu-phobia in Britain”. More to the point, Sir Keir, a successful but somewhat distant lawyer who dealt a crushing defeat to the Conservative Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, promised to “build a new strategic partnership with India”.

Mr Sunak’s defeat must have brought the sharpest sense of personal loss to his India-based mother-in-law, Sudha Murthy, a member of the Rajya Sabha. Ms Murthy took pride in boasting that she had made her husband, Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, while her daughter Akshata “had managed to make her husband Prime Minister of the UK”. Others may feel that the comment that having lost an empire, Britain still hasn’t found a role, remains as true today as when the American politician, Dean Acheson, made it in 1962.

As for the rest of Britain, the Reform UK party’s Nigel Farage wasn’t farout when he said that there was no enthusiasm for the new Prime Minister whose Labour Party swept the polls, capturing two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons with just over one-third of the popular vote. Having succeeded in entering Parliament in his eighth attempt, 60-year-old Mr Farage vows to take over Labour.

Some members may well succumb to his blandishments since the last vestige of the ideological commitment that distinguishes one party from another had vanished when Tony Blair ended Labour’s hallowed commitment to mass nationalisation to create the vote-winning New Labour.

Opponents of the move had grumbled then — and probably still believe now — that there is nothing in the party’s creed to prevent overlapping with groups such as the Liberal Democrats, Mr Farage’s Reform UK, which has only four MPs, or even Mr Sunak’s Conservatives. The last have been in power during 14 years of “economic, social and political vandalism”, to cite the Labour-supporting ethnic Indian life peer, Ayesha, Baroness Hazarika.

Governance in Britain has suffered during this time under no fewer than five Prime Ministers. The Conservative Party is a group of some 180,000 people who tend to be better off and older than the rest, and who are suspected (perhaps unfairly) of expecting government financial strategies and high officers of state to demonstrate a special duty to the group’s own collective welfare.

Mr Sunak’s privileged background of expensive boarding schools and Oxford, and his wealth, which is said to exceed that of King Chares III, with a country house costing more than £2 million among extensive gardens and a lake, only reinforced that plutocratic image. He succeeded Prime Minister Liz Truss whose 2022 mini-budget was such a disaster that she as well as her finance minister, chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, had to quit.

There were reports that her predecessor, Boris Johnson, Prime Minister from 2019 to 2022, did nothing to help Mr Sunak strengthen his position while he faced crisis after crisis in office.

Investment fell during those months, not enough new jobs were created, the once prized National Health Service prompted innumerable complaints of delay and negligence, and rising inflation and low economic growth were compounded by Brexit, which took Britain out of the European Union. Widely hailed at the time as the answer to all problems, Brexit appears to have created more challenges than it solved, especially by dividing Britain between North and South as well as between the rich and poor.

Mr Sunak did draw up some commendable plans for economic revival but many of them did not bear fruit.

However, as Britain’s youngest (at 42) Prime Minister since 1812 when Robert Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool, was sworn in, and as the first man of colour (also a Hindu — he took his oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita), he earned a place in history. Not that he showed any particular regard for India, the land of his ancestors. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to. Apart from colleagues like Suella Braverman, a Goa-origin whiter-than-white hardliner, there were Brits to make snide remarks to indicate in subtle ways that not quite being English, he was not qualified to govern England.

Race remains a touchy subject. Even Sir Keir Starmer faced a significant backlash after recently naming Bangladesh as a country from where people coming in should be sent back.

He might have been making amends when be singled out the ethnic Pakistani mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as the first person to hug after becoming Prime Minister-elect. Paying homage at North London’s Shree Swaminarayan Mandir in Kingsbury, and lavishing tributes on Hindu culture, even promising “to govern in the spirit of seva”, may have been part of the act.

India has had a chequered relationship with Britain’s Labour Party. It was of course the party of India’s independence, and Prime Minister Clement Attlee sometimes irritated Indian listeners by saying that he “gave” India independence. But Indians in responsible positions took the view that Labour had fallen prey to Islamic fundamentalists, and deeply resented its stand on Jammu and Kashmir and the Gujarat religious riots. Labour politicians were accused of staging violent demonstrations outside India’s high commission in London, forcing the high commissioner to seek police protection.

Now that India is moving closer to the West, especially the United States, it is in India’s interest to see that its relationships with Europe, Japan, the European Union and Britain also show improvement. Sir Keir has promised CHANGE in block capitals, and the bilateral relationship is one area that should not be ignored. Neither trade, estimated at £25 billion, nor India’s ranking as the second largest investor in Britain with 107 new projects creating 8,664 new jobs there, can fully convey the deep and permanent social, cultural and emotional ties between the two countries. China is the big challenge for India and yet China’s trade surplus with India continues to grow.

There is no reason why India and Britain cannot be equally flexible with each other and revive stalled talks on a free trade agreement. The new British Prime Minister’s mention of a new strategic partnership with India could be the beginning of a return to the closer cooperation of the historic past.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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