The long battle for the British premiership has now ended with Liz Truss formally taking over as the new prime minister of a nation that is reeling under a slew of crises—political, economic and diplomatic.
It’s a historic win for Truss as she is only the third woman prime minister of the U.K., but these are also historically unprecedented times in the country.
Boris Johnson’s legacy is one of malgovernance and a growing sense of pessimism about the future. His shenanigans have damaged the brand of the Conservative Party as the natural party of governance and the leadership contest between Truss and Rishi Sunak has only aggravated the cleavages within the party.
For Truss, the central challenge will be to address the economic distress being faced by ordinary Britons as the cost-of-living crisis is now leading to widespread social discontent. Yet, as she focuses on the multiple domestic challenges—rebuilding her party’s unity to make it electable in the face of a resurgent Labour Party amid a gathering storm of socio-economic distress—the outside world will not leave her alone.
Britain’s relations with the European Union are in the doldrums after the British government decided to move ahead by giving powers to U.K. ministers to override parts of the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Foreign policy will continue to intrude into her domestic plans and it was clear from her full backing to Ukraine in a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky, shortly after taking office, in which she underscored that Ukraine “could depend on the U.K.’s assistance for the long term”. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has begun to taunt that while Russia was coping with the West’s economic “aggression”, the quality of life for Europeans was being sacrificed to sanctions.
Britain’s relations with the European Union are in the doldrums after the British government decided to move ahead by giving powers to U.K. ministers to override parts of the post-Brexit trading arrangements. The EU is likely to launch infringement proceedings against the U.K. on Sept. 15 that can lead to the imposition of trade barriers on the U.K. This would be catastrophic at a time when the British economy is under a lot of pressure already.
But one area where we are likely to see significant continuity is Britain’s outreach to India. Over the last decade, India-U.K. ties have begun to change course and they have reached to a point where personalities have become marginal to their evolution.
There is today a striking degree of convergence in New Delhi and London’s strategic priorities. And that has given their bilateral ties a new momentum with Johnson and Narendra Modi laying out an expansive vision for the relationship.
Despite the challenge posed by the Ukraine crisis, the India-U.K. relationship has been on an upward trajectory, exemplified by the conclusion of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership last year that also established a 2030 Roadmap for India-U.K. relations.
As India seeks to carve out a new role for itself in the evolving global order as a ‘leading power’ and the U.K. recalibrates its strategic outlook post-Brexit, this is a unique moment in India-U.K. ties.
The top leadership in the two nations remain committed to building a lasting partnership and in the process, older issues like Pakistan have become marginal in the bilateral discourse.
Both India and the U.K. are serious about overcoming legacy issues and engaging in robust dialogue to promote cooperation on strategic and defense issues, both in the Indo-Pacific as well as at the global level. The newer areas of cooperation—namely, fintech, market regulation, sustainable and green finance, and cybersecurity—have emerged as the new frontiers of this engagement.
For the last few years, Truss was trying to operationalise the vision of Johnson and now she will be in the driver’s seat. Her optimism about the India-U.K. ties is likely to ensure that she would continue to invest in outreach towards New Delhi.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar were quick to congratulate Truss after her victory, expressing confidence that the India-U.K. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership will be further strengthened under her leadership.
Both India and the U.K. are serious about overcoming legacy issues and engaging in robust dialogue to promote cooperation on strategic and defense issues, both in the Indo-Pacific as well as at the global level.
Truss has been a big champion of strong India-U.K. ties and she views India as a partner in the true strategic sense of the term as reflected in her remarks: “China and Russia have spotted an ideological vacuum and they’re rushing to fill it. They are emboldened in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War. As freedom-loving democracies, we must rise up to face down these threats. As well as NATO, we are working with partners like Australia, India, Japan, Indonesia and Israel to build a global network of liberty.”
Though many in India may not see the world order as a struggle between democracies and autocracies, the U.K.’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, resulting in closer maritime cooperation with India as well as shaping the regional balance of power, is likely to shape Delhi-London engagement.
Truss also remains favourably disposed to an immigration system that attracts the best and the brightest from India, with China already getting relegated by India in accounting for the largest share of study visas issued by the U.K.
But the key metric for Truss’ role in shaping India-U.K. ties will be her commitment to the ongoing bilateral FTA negotiations for which Johnson had set the deadline of Diwali. She has suggested that the two nations are “in a sweet spot of the trade dynamics that are building up”, a sentiment that conveys her desire to conclude trade talks early.
For India, this is a time to establish its credentials as a reliable trading partner. The perception that it is difficult to do business with India has done great damage to India’s credibility as a rising power. Without adequate capabilities to attract other economic players, India will remain marginal to the global economic order.
This is something that Indian policy makers seem intent on rectifying with the signing of trade pacts such as the historic Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement or CEPA with the U.A.E. in February. It was followed by an “early harvest” trade pact with Australia in April that is likely to enter into a full FTA by end of 2022.
Political turmoil in the U.K. over the last few months may have slowed the negotiations down but Truss’ victory should now give it the requisite fillip.
India and the U.K. are both trying to carve out their new identities on the global stage and their strategic convergence has allowed for the possibility of reimagining the future of their partnership. Truss has the potential to further galvanise this unique relationship that is trying to adjust to the 21st century realities.
This commentary originally appeared in The Bloomberg.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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