As Theresa May battles to ensure her MPs pass another vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill and the BJP fights for the PM’s home state of Gujarat, it is worthwhile to examine the status of UK-India relations. Following May’s entry into No. 10 in July 2016, bilateral relations became disenfranchised, largely attributed to adviser Nick Timothy’s antipathy to centre-right leaders such as Donald Trump, Malcom Turnbull and Narendra Modi. Sources close to No. 10, at that time, claim that Timothy briefed Conservatives to distance themselves from the BJP and to look upon Narendra Modi as a “Hindu nationalist”. At the World Economic Forum, Davos in January 2017, there was already a buzz about how Timothy had alienated India.
This attitude was completely at odds with the favourable relations David Cameron had achieved with India, US and Germany. Cameron strengthened an International Department with a dedicated International Secretary, Colin Bloom, who was also in charge of international outreach. Bloom realised favourable communications with Ram Madhav, fulfilling party chairman Lord Feldman’s initiative of bringing the BJP into the International Democrat Union, against the initial reluctance of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany. Mark Field MP, then vice chairman (international) of the Conservative Party, forged ahead with building relationships with international sister parties on the centre-right and obtained Angela Merkel’s agreement. Cameron was committed to promoting bilateral relations with India and gave Modi an unprecedented welcome to London in November 2015, inviting him to Chequers, the country house of the UK Prime Minister, and Modi was represented on Tory 2016 election campaign material.
On the other hand, Theresa May has been known to have an affinity and warmth to Pakistan, having been introduced to her husband by Benazir Bhutto, a link neither the Bhutto or May family has forgotten. In September this year, at the UNGA, May paid tribute to the tenth anniversary of the death of the assassinated PPP leader.
Following May’s ascension as Prime Minister after Cameron resigned, a dramatic re-organisation of the Conservative Campaign HQ occurred; the International Department had its wings clipped and is apparently now a shadow of its former self and administered by a junior. As Home Minister, May has a track record of being unsympathetic to India, particularly in respect to immigration. It is not long ago May despatched vans to Southall, Hounslow and Harrow with the slogan “go home or face arrest”. During this brutal crackdown against illegals, some genuine students were trapped into deportation. Small wonder that May’s visit to India bore no fruit; May had nothing to offer and the back channel to the BJP had been closed on the advice of her closest adviser.
However, some ministers are well known for their pro-India sentiments. Mark Field, Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, has visited Delhi and Chennai twice in the past three months, meeting with the Minister for Information and Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad and the Minister of State for External Affairs, M.J. Akbar to discuss CyFy and Commonwealth co-operation. Field publicly congratulated India on becoming the newest member of the Wassenaar Arrangement and he looked forward to working with India, as the UK assumes the Chair of the Plenary from 1 January 2018. Field has privately supported that Indian student numbers should be removed from immigration figures. Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, is a known Indophile, should he ever become leader of the Conservative Party, a rapid transformation of CCHQ would be expected; it could even happen under a new chairman of the party once the lacklustre Patrick McLoughlin retires. Should the new chairman be on Johnson’s team, an overhaul of CCHQ would see many 2015 Cameronites running the show.
This would be a welcome change to the indifference to India of the current administration, which in the last general election selected no new ethnic minority candidates into the top 25 target seats and only five into the top 100 seats, compared to Cameron’s record breaking 63 ethnic candidates in 2015, for which he was rewarded with a historic million plus ethnic minority votes. In the 2016 election, May passed this goodwill over to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition, who delivered for British Indians the first female Sikh MP and the first turbaned Sikh MP. This month it was revealed that ethnic minority support for the Conservative party has dropped to the low levels of 2001, in effect reversing all the progress Cameron had made.