While British Prime Minister Theresa May’s first foray into post referendum trade negotiations is not quite a disaster, it is hardly a roaring success either.
She came to New Delhi full of the usual slogans about Britain being “open for business”, but open to more Indian students to attend UK universities? Ah, that is a another matter.
In fact there were times when she sounded more like some colonial era governor laying down the conditions that must be met in order for the imperial power to allow a few crumbs to fall from its table.
India wants more UK visas for its students and workers; that was met with, in effect, a straight ‘no’.
May said it would be considered if New Delhi persuaded its illegal immigrants in the UK to return home — a demand that left many people here scratching their heads. How is it India’s responsibility to round up illegals and over-stayers in another country? Surely this is work for British authorities.
She was much more forthcoming when it came to allowing in rich Indian business people ready to invest in the country – but many who witnessed her statement saw it as just another attempt to lure India’s best and brightest away for good.
This is anathema to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has long campaigned for highly skilled members of the country’s diaspora to return and help build the India he dreams of being a dominant power by mid-century.
May’s hardline approach is at odds with the post-Brexit realities for her country. If the UK is to make any kind of success of its life after EU membership, it needs India, whose economic growth is the envy of the world.
The spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, summed up the mood when he said the Government would continue to raise concerns regarding people mobility with the UK.
“Mobility of people is closely linked to free flow of finance, goods and services,” Swarup said.
The partnership can flourish — there is actually more sympathy for Britain here than in much of the white Commonwealth — but it must be a partnership based on equality and mutual respect.
This was simply not on display during May’s address. Instead, as one participant remarked, she was more like a schoolmarm berating a class of recalcitrant children.
It was not a good start and if the UK PM is going to get anything out of this relationship other than a few smiles and friendly handshakes, she will have to lift her game.