The Indian PM’s recent visits to the UK, Sweden and Germany, reflect the changed heft exercised by India in geopolitics. The UK visit, which included bilateral talks and attendance at the Commonwealth summit, was the focal point of the entire trip. The events during the visit show that gone are the days when Indian takeaways from international diplomacy would be analyzed. This visit showed that India is a lot more crucial to UK than the other way around. In the post-Brexit era and with Britain rapidly sinking into political irrelevance and unstable dependencies, it is looking towards India to forge a meaningful economic and diplomatic partnership.
It is like history repeating itself, but on completely different terms. When the East India Company arrived in India to slyly expand the project of British colonialism through its mercantile activities, the British were initially dismissed as heathens, so much so that Emperor Akbar had even briefly flirted with the idea of ‘civilizing’ them. India was a land of riches, culture and unparalleled economic growth. What followed the phase of British colonialism and theft is now history. But today, Britain and India are at a similar juncture under modern conditions.
For Britain, it can no longer rely on US in the unstable Trump era and it has broken away from the EU on the whims of certain anti-EU protests which resulted in Brexit. The UK has become fertile ground for anyone to come and conduct their misdeeds – see how Russia got away with endless political assassinations for more than a decade, with the British intelligence and government fully aware but helpless to challenge or antagonize the powerful Russians.
Similarly, the British soil has become a ripe ground for any identity group to hold the public sphere and the British government hostage to its demands. In Britain, Sikh extremism (a major point in the bilateral talks), Kashmiri separatism – both sponsored by Pakistan and Pak-origin UK MPs – are on a rise, along with emboldened frivolous anti-caste crusaders and what not. They are on the rise not because the British encourage multicultural democracy, but because the British are now helpless to do anything and these fringe elements are out of their control. In the two-year span of 2016 and 2017, the British soil was also rocked by a series of frequent Islamic terror attacks and yet there was little action that even the conservative Theresa May could take towards Islamists.
The situation, on both geopolitical and domestic fronts, is not how UK would like things to be – they are losing control over their own alien populations. It is no surprise, then, that the UK government was once again blackmailed – by ostensibly ‘constitutional’ means – to take the opportunity of Modi’s visit to raise ‘concerns’ about the usual anti-minority and anti-women situation in India. But the irony is that the same country which had banned Modi for entering until 2012, is no longer in a position to raise such bossy ‘concerns’ and make them a precondition to any bilateral deals.
And deals are something that the UK wants now. The most important takeaway of Modi’s visit was the India-UK free-trade agreement that UK wants signed. India and EU are also working on refining the India-EU free trade pact. But for the UK, such an agreement becomes important to anchor its interests in the post-Brexit, post-EU, post-US era. India, on its part, values the India-EU free trade agreement more and the India-UK pact can be successful only if the UK relents on the issues of easy visa and immigration policies for skilled workers from India to UK. Even though the UK was aware of this, it gave Modi exceptional treatment, not normally accorded to visiting Heads of State.
The UK also, this time, wants a revival of the Commonwealth, which has been of little use to India for the past several years. India already has its own very strong bilateral relations with African countries – so strong, in fact, that even the US wants to partner with India to expand in Africa. India, by taking the lead in convening the recent International Solar Alliance in Gurgaon, has another multilateral avenue with African nations. So, the Commonwealth has become little more than a symbolic grouping – viewed, in fact, as an outlived product of post-colonial era. But now, after Brexit, the revival of Commonwealth has become crucial to UK. It wants to work out the Commonwealth as a viable replacement of the EU. That cannot be done without India. That is why Modi was being courted for the last few months by the Queen, the British PM and Prince Charles, to personally attend the Commonwealth summit, since the last few summits had been attended neither by Modi nor by Manmohan Singh.
By reviving the Commonwealth, India would be doing a favour to the grouping as well as to the UK – reminiscent of India’s historical magnanimity when it first obliged the mercantile East India Company. But times have changed. Modi’s main agenda has nothing to do with the Transatlantic. For him, diplomacy with the “First World” countries is limited mainly to economic interests.
For instance, UK’s support or lack thereof has ceased to matter in international affairs, as the country loses its own relevance. That is why its human rights ‘concerns’ did not form the precursor of UK-India talks and endless protests by fringe elements – including the tearing of the Indian flag near the British Parliament – did not have any impact on public opinion, except to generate outrage. Efforts to internationalize issues of Kashmiris and Khalistanis do not have any traction in a world where India has become one of the countries that dictate the terms. The only thing that the operation of such fringe elements – who operate in the name of multiculturalism and democracy – does mean is that the UK is under siege and needs serious help, before it burns itself in the fire of self-destruction. It has no impact for India.
Modi’s vision and priority, as can be recalled before his upcoming China visit, is to work with countries like Japan and China towards an ‘Asian century’. This is no longer just a term but a reality that is unfolding. Its results can be seen in China’s and India’s successful outreach to all other Asian countries, the bonhomie between China and Japan, the growing closeness of China and India, Dalai Lama’s declaration that Tibet can be part of China and finally, the prospects of reunification of Korea, without any help from the US. In fact, as things unfold on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s possible summit with US seems to be limited to the agenda of nuclear weapons only, whereas talks with South Korea have a deeper cultural and nostalgic foregrounding, from which the US is excluded.
Developments are happening across Asia with surprising speed and in a natural way, as even little efforts produce immediate results. This is reminiscent of Sri Aurobindo’s lines in the ‘Hour of God’, which seems to be upon us now – a moment when “the Spirit moves among men and the breath of the Lord is upon the waters of our being…period when even a little effort produces great results and changes destiny.” (Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenery Library 1972).
Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenery Library. 1972. The Hour of God and Other Writings. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.