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Mending India-Labour Relations Won’t Be Easy For Starmer

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As was widely expected in the UK elections, the Labour Party has registered one of its biggest victories, inflicting a huge defeat on the Conservative Party.

No one had expected this seismic outcome just a few years ago. But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is going to be the next British Prime Minister, is being hailed by everyone for changing the fortune of the party. He promised to get Britain out of economic stagnation and claimed he would fix the ailing National Health Services. He even reached out to ethnic communities, including the Indian diaspora.

‘Namaste’, Starmer

In the last days of the election campaign, Keir Starmer visited the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Kingsbury, a prominent Hindu temple in London, and said “namaste” with folded hands. His charm offensive included him wearing a tilak on his forehead and a floral garland around his neck. Starmer may have looked out of place, but it was an attempt to placate angry Indian diaspora voters, the majority of whom were expected to favour the Conservative Party. The temple visit was also intended to send out a strong signal of friendship with India.

Also Read | Labour Sweeps UK Polls, Rishi Sunak’s Party Ousted For 1st Time In 14 Years

Despite his awkwardness, Starmer knew he had to perform this political act, not only because his visit underscored Labour’s commitment to embracing and celebrating diversity within the UK, but also because he needed to repair relations with the influential Indian diaspora, and, by extension, India. It had been clear for quite some time that his party was returning to power after a hiatus of 14 years and he was going to be the next UK Prime Minister; that is why he needed to undertake an India outreach before assuming office.

The Baggage Of The Past

Starmer’s gesture of visiting the temple was particularly significant given the events of September 2019, when during its annual conference in Brighton, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had passed a motion addressing the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The motion declared that there was a humanitarian crisis in the region and asserted that the people of Kashmir should be granted the right to self-determination. Additionally, it had called for the deployment of international monitors to the area to ensure the protection of human rights and the assessment of the situation on the ground.

Needless to say, the Labour Party had gone too far. And despite the clarification issued by Jeremy Corbyn, the damage was done.

The motion was met with significant backlash from the Indian diaspora, who felt that it was one-sided and did not consider the complexities of the Kashmir issue. The event marked a turning point as many members of the Indian community began to shift their allegiances to the Conservative Party.

Also Read | “This Is A Massacre”: Conservative Leader As Labour Heads For Massive UK Win

The Indian government also responded sharply to the Labour’s motion. It was reported that the Indian High Commission in London took the unprecedented step of cancelling a scheduled dinner for Labour leaders, signalling its strong disapproval. The Indian government officially rejected the motion, emphasising its concerns about what it viewed as interference in its internal affairs.

In an effort to mend relations, Starmer attempted to address the situation last year, when he asserted that the Labour Party would strive to maintain strong relations with India, indicating a desire to rebuild trust and cooperation. Despite these efforts, the episode highlighted the fragile nature of Labour’s relations with India and underscored the significant political influence of the Indian diaspora in the UK.
Labour’s image makeover under Starmer

A Changed Labour

Indeed, the Labour Party has now made a triumphant comeback, securing a thumping majority. We should keep in mind that the party is a much-changed one under Starmer. It wants to inject more depth and substance into Britain’s strategic partnership with India.

India is most likely to carefully monitor Labour’s policy stance on Kashmir, immigration and the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The Indian government may have apprehensions about Labour’s views on its internal matters, but on balance, the India-UK bilateral relations will not change much under Starmer. In fact, Labour supporters in the Indian community believe that under him, the relations are likely to improve. It is being claimed that the number of Indian-origin Labour MPs would double from the current six members in the outgoing Parliament. 

Will The Ties Improve?

Academics in the UK at times tend to romanticise the bilateral ties between the two countries, looking at it chiefly from the prism of colonial nostalgia. We are led to believe that it is in India’s interest to have a deeper strategic partnership with Britain. To be honest, however, India sees Britain as a middle power, whose influence on the global stage has been on the wane for long. One can only blame the Conservative Party for it, a beleaguered and divided house which presided over 14 years of stagnation. India under Narendra Modi, who was born after the country’s independence, is, whether rightly or wrongly, not in awe of its erstwhile colonial masters.

Also Read | UK’s Labour Party Commits To Stamping Out “Anti-India Sentiments”

Yes, the bilateral trade in goods and services is growing steadily, and stood at £39 billion last year, with the balance of trade heavily in India’s favour. Yes, we have a vocal, upwardly mobile Indian diaspora, which acts as a bridge between the two countries and it often works to India’s advantage. But the oomph factor in bilateral relations has been missing for a long time. For example, India and the US warmed up to each other and became trusted partners only after the Civil Nuclear Agreement between the two countries was brokered under President George W. Bush. It was a pivotal moment that added significant “oomph” to bilateral ties and transformed the dynamics of the relationship, fostering deeper strategic, economic, and technological cooperation. It set the stage for an enduring partnership in the 21st century. Even during the Obama and Trump administrations the bilateral ties never ran out of excitement. 

One cannot say the same about India-UK relations, which badly need to be injected with energy, excitement and a mega-deal. 

FTA: Starmer’s First Challenge In India-UK Ties

With regards to India, one of the first tasks on Starmer’s desk will be to reach a Free Trade Agreement. He has maintained his commitment to completing the FTA, but it is not going to be easy. India’s priority appears to be to finalise an agreement with the European Union (EU) first. The bilateral trade in goods and services last year stood at €113 billion. The two sides relaunched the negotiations in 2022 and the progress is said to be satisfactory.

According to a group of researchers, another stumbling block in the India-UK FTA is “the opposition in the UK to Indian demands for more visas for intra-company transfers and particularly to demands that social security contributions from Indian workers during such transfers be reimbursed”.

Immigration Policies

Brexit has led to record levels of Indian immigration. Of the 6.85 lakh immigrants in the UK today, the majority come from India. The Labour Party’s stated aim is to reduce legal immigration and curb illegal immigration. Many of the legal Indian immigrants are IT professionals on work permits, contributing to the UK’s technology sector. There is a small number of illegal immigrants from India as well.

The party’s policy seeks to balance the economic benefits of skilled migrants with the goal of controlling overall immigration numbers, reflecting broader political and economic priorities.
Human Rights and Citizenship Laws

Historically, the Labour Party has been vocal about human rights issues in India, particularly on laws like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Labour Party’s criticism has been viewed by the Indian government as interference and a misrepresentation of India’s internal policies aimed at addressing specific security concerns. Starmer will be under pressure from domestic human rights organisations to put forward liberal British perspectives. His diplomatic skills are bound to be tested in the coming months and years.

The relations between the UK’s Labour Party and the Indian government are complex, influenced by historical ties, diaspora politics, and divergent policy priorities. Addressing such challenges will require nuanced diplomacy, mutual respect, and an understanding of the sensitivities involved on both sides.

(Syed Zubair Ahmed is a London-based senior Indian journalist with three decades of experience with the Western media)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author



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