The relationship between the UK and India is poised to enter a new defining era. Dramatic changes to the UK’s trading outlook has prompted a revision of its international partnerships, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trade reforms, aptly characterised by his “Global India” programme, indicate that the two countries now find themselves at a similar trading juncture.
“Brexit Britain Meets Global India” was the theme of the inaugural “UK-India Week”—a series of events running between 18 June and 22 June, and was designed to bring together business leaders, parliamentarians and policymakers to discuss issues central to furthering UK and India’s connection. Organised by Manoj Ladwa, CEO of IndiaInc., and a member of CWEIC’s International Advisory Council, events such as these are hugely important to the development of UK-India trade and investment ties.
Much commentary has been made about the opportunity that exists between the two nations, but only positive action will ensure that this opportunity becomes a reality. This is why UK-India week is so valuable, as it allows widespread engagement on the matter, draws attention to the mutual benefits of more open trade, and celebrates those pushing the relationship forward. The private sector has a responsibility to help shape international policy, and thus the opportunity to connect with government and other businesses on a high-profile platform is immensely important.
This notion was reflected by Secretary of State, Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox at the launch, who also called for businesses to come forward and share their insights on UK-India trade with the Department for International Trade. “Your ideas today can be the policy for tomorrow”, Dr Fox implored, and I do believe this bottom-up message will be key to the relationship’s development. The two governments need to create enabling policy, which is a direct response to the needs of business.
The private sector will no doubt account for a huge portion of UK-India trade, so whilst bilateral talks, state visits and official meetings all have their place in the progression of trade relationships, the real impact and expertise stems from ambitious business leaders carving new deals and entering new markets.
Following this people-centric theme, whilst in Nigeria recently, in conjunction with the Lord Mayor of London’s visit, I spoke to representatives from business and government who discussed the huge importance of diaspora populations for driving trade. The UK boasts the second largest Nigerian diaspora after the US, who’s activity in the private sector and is at the genesis of a series of new UK-Nigeria opWportunities. The introduction of naira as a “pre-approved” currency by UK Export Finance last year for example, the ability to dual list companies on the LSE and NSE, and the first UK listed “Nigeria Diaspora Bond”, all create a framework which supports the diaspora’s engagement in the bilateral relationship.
This acknowledgement of the power diasporas, I believe, has enormous relevance for the UK and India. After all, Indians are the second largest diaspora living in the UK after any other country, with population estimates weighing in at around 1.7 million people. This is hugely significant, as Indian business in the UK will naturally look toward India as a first port of call for trade, and vice versa. Diaspora populations add a personal element to a trading relationship, and will often be found at the epicentre of bilateral trade.
A selection of individuals pushing the bilateral relationship forward were acknowledged at the UK-India Awards dinner. Many of whom a part of the Indian diaspora, awards were presented not just to business leaders, but influential individuals in culture, government, technology and international relations. “We are doing all we can to boost our links with India”, pronounced special guest Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, “not just in the fields of business and commerce, but across our cultural and creative industries too.” This sentiment was an important acknowledgement that a strong and lasting bilateral relationship is not solely built on faceless commerce and trade; it has people at its heart.
As for now, the ball is firmly in India’s court. The United Kingdom has actively and publicly expressed interest in India as a priority country for trade. India has the resources, the people and the commercial opportunities to take the relationship to new heights, yet the question remains to what extent the Indian government will prioritise the UK as a trading destination.
Another unpredictable element will be the final form this growing relationship takes. A full free trade agreement within the next year seems very unlikely, but consistent development, such as the UK-India Trade Partnership announced in April, will ensure that the trade relationship remains steadily building.
Events such UK-India Week are thus an important part of the relationship’s development story. They illustrate to the respective governments that those at the apex of UK-India business and commerce are serious about advancing the partnership, and want to be a part of the conversation. The trade figures echo this interest, with trade in goods and services between the UK and India worth £18bn in 2017—an enormous 15% increase from the previous year.
Trade dialogue between superpowers inevitably takes time, but with the input and knowledge of those currently at the forefront of UK-Indian trade, and with great platforms like UK-India Week driving the dialogue forward, the relationship is set to make even more history.
Richard Burge is Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.