British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is watched by sadhus, as he pours water on a statue in the Abhishek at the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in Ahmedabad, part of his two-day trip to India, Thursday, April 21, 2022. (AP)
Being in the eye of a storm while ignoring the crosswinds is something of a Boris Johnson specialty these days. Back in the UK, they are baying for his blood with Parliament setting up a probe into whether the Prime Minister, the first in British history to be held guilty of breaking the law and be fined for it, is guilty of lying about it to the House.
Out in India, he was feted like royalty at a time when there is little likelihood of the Tory party considering him an electoral asset anymore or the people not looking at him as a national liability after he was found to be a serial party participant in the time of the pandemic while breaking the law he had made and passed in Parliament. As the irony of ironies would have it, Mr Johnson even opened a JCB factory in Gujarat at a time when the bulldozer is fast emerging as a national symbol of hate in India.
Given the prevailing circumstances, the pomp and pageantry of Mr Johnson’s two-day visit, beginning in Gujarat like the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit did once, was a triumph of spirit over adversity and of diplomacy over practical politics. There were reasons for India to feel pleased too as Mr Johnson’s proposals offering to wean it away from over-dependence on Russian military hardware seem to make sense when Russian arms are not exactly overperforming on Ukrainian battlefields.
Mr Johnson’s body language seemed to suggest that the UK needs India more at the moment than the opposite though there is no convergence on the national stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of which Mr Johnson is Europe’s fiercest critic. An understanding of India’s position on Russia and its abstentions from UN votes lambasting the aggressor has extended to Britain, too, which is at least what Mr Johnson’s speeches revealed.
A Free Trade Agreement, on the anvil for a while, is expected to fructify by Diwali or Christmas to give the UK a major trade deal it seeks post-Brexit. Both sides should benefit from it, including, perhaps, Indians from less taxed Scotch whisky. But of greater importance would be visas for highly skilled Indians for whom the UK is a favoured destination, thanks to colonial ties with the English language.
The easing of procedures to buy defence equipment through an India-specific Open General Export Licence to be rolled out by 10 Downing Street is a welcome sign of awareness on both sides of the changing geopolitics post-Ukraine war and an opportunity for India to look at Britain and others for its fighter jets, helicopters and other military equipment, besides crypto battle abilities, that may be in need of modernisation from ageing Russia technology.
The "joyful" vibes were such that the right noises were made about economic fugitives from India hiding in Britain besides a host of issues being addressed, including the question of human rights. The mood at the bilateral table endorsed the views expressed that "Brindia" ties are at their best currently. Amid the positivity hang such questions as to whether India will ease tariffs that protect its home industry to make any big difference to the quantum of trade and if Boris Johnson’s position when he is back home will allow him to convert optimistic words into action.