The recently concluded visit is a laudable effort to bring the ‘Indian elephant’ out of the corner and centre-stage, a place that the international community now wishes India to assume

by Bhaswati Mukherjee

India’s relations with Europe and the 28-member European Union (EU) officially date back to the early 1960s. India’s leadership, from Independence, had a clear perspective on building strong relations with the former European Economic Community (EEC), apart from developing strong bilateral relations with individual EU member states. 

India was among the first to establish diplomatic relations with the EEC in 1962. France, Germany and the UK remained India’s main strategic partners and often cut separate bilateral deals. 

The Nordics, because of their different world view and tendency to highlight human rights and caste issues in any dialogue with India, were largely ignored by India’s political and foreign policy establishments. Contrary to popular perception within the EU, encouraged by the UK, India never looked at its relations with the EU through the prism of its bilateral relationship with its former colonizer, the United Kingdom. India’s engagement with Europe was a separate and important pillar of its foreign policy. 

With Brexit looming, India needs to cement separate partnerships with the EU and UK. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently concluded visit to Europe and UK needs to be looked at in this perspective.

The first ever Indo-Nordic Summit at Stockholm on April 17, 2018 at the invitation of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and co-hosted by both prime ministers, marks a breakthrough in engaging with this region, apart from the importance of the bilateral interactions on April 16. This was, after all, the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to Sweden since former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988! In Modi’s signature style characterizing his foreign tours, such was his rapport with his Swedish counterpart that the latter dropped protocol to receive him at the airport and the two prime ministers travelled in the same car.

At the summit, the focus was on strengthening cooperation on global and regional issues of mutual interest as well as the threat of international terrorism, now of major concern to the West. It has been informally ascertained that social and human rights issues were not raised. 

The prime ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway also had bilateral discussions on the margins of the summit. The development agenda was one of the high priorities with efforts to attract foreign direct investment in key sectors of the Indian economy such as clean energy, infrastructure, ship building as well as skill development and innovation, niche Nordic areas of strength. While Nordic enthusiasm for a Free Trade Agreement was reportedly set aside due to reservations by the powerful Indian commerce ministry, trade and investment issues remained high on the agenda.

The new warmth in relations is also expected to extend to cooperation in multilateral fora including Nordic support to India’s candidature for permanent membership to the Security Council as well as to India’s pending membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), held up due to China’s insistence to link India’s candidature with Pakistan. Bilaterally, such support is already forthcoming from Sweden.

The vibrant Indian diaspora, of about 100,000 NRIs, mostly professionals who have assimilated the local culture and are fully integrated, gave Modi a warm welcome. Modi addressed the diaspora as well as leaders of business and industry. In tune with present projection of India’s soft power, they were reassured regarding more people-to-people contacts as well as regular cultural exchanges showcasing India’s rich cultural heritage as a result of this visit.

Modi’s stopover in London for four days of bilaterals as well as to attend CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) was significant for several reasons. It signalled a renewed Indian engagement and interest in the Commonwealth at a critical time when Queen Elizabeth II was stepping down as head and the UK was expecting India to play a leadership role in rejuvenating the Commonwealth. Indian prime ministers had skipped three earlier summits. It also provided a timely opportunity to Prime Minster Theresa May to engage India, particularly on trade in a post Brexit scenario. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who received Modi, said: “Thanks to our shared history, we have a living bridge between us… and now we want to build on the incredible tech sector where both India and the UK are making giant strides together”. 

It is a matter of conjecture whether India is well prepared for the impact of Brexit. It seems unlikely, considering the opacity of the ongoing negotiations between Brussels and London and the absence of information regarding future trade arrangements between the EU and UK. This visit would help efforts to establish our trade linkages with UK post Brexit. The UK remains a valued strategic ally of India and an important economic partner. Both prime mionisters initiated the India-UK CEOs Forum to cement the business and trade partnership. India-UK bilateral trade stands at USD 13 billion, with the UK among the largest G20 investors in India. 

Modi was the only leader to have two meetings with May, including a bilateral at 10 Downing Street over breakfast. Cross-border terrorism, visas and immigration were high on the agenda. 

“Very welcome to London, Prime Minister,” May said as she greeted Modi, who arrived in a Tata Motors’ Range Rover. A flash mob of sari-clad women from the diaspora accompanied by dhols gathered outside Downing Street to welcome Modi with banners such as: “In India, peace is always in fashion”. 

The meeting had been well prepared in advance by the foreign offices on both sides. A senior Indian official noted: “A slew of agreements will be signed between India and the UK during the bilateral leg of the visit today. This is a relationship that cuts across all sectors and has reached a very mature level. The Prime Minister’s visit is about what more we can do to build on that”. 

In another privilege granted only to the Indian Prime Minister, Modi had a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, where India’s support to the Commonwealth was reportedly the main thrust of the discussions. This was followed by the ‘Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath’ diaspora event, telecast live from the iconic Central Hall of Westminster. It was a unique event, the centrepiece of the ‘Living Bridge’ theme of the India-UK bilateral visit. Modi was in great form and humour, responding freely to questions from across the world. 

The theme of the formal executive session of CHOGM was “Towards a Common Future”. It concluded on a positive note. The issue of succession was also resolved with the baton moving to Prince Charles as requested by the Queen. Since the last two members to join - Rwanda and Mozambique - had no historical ties to the Empire, some experts argued that end of the Queen’s term as head of the organisation was a welcome opportunity for the non-hereditary post to be passed on to a non-royal in order to distance the group from its colonial past. Others claimed that it is the royal family that holds the grouping together. 

India took a conservative position on this issue. A senior Indian official pointed out: “India has no objection to Prince Charles as the next head because he has worked hard for the institution. However, we are also clear that there should be no institutionalisation of the post.”

On his way home, Modi stopped briefly in Berlin. He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel with whom he has built up a good rapport. Strategic and regional and international issues were discussed and common positions reached. 

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted Modi’s visit “demonstrates India’s mutual desire to strengthen the strategic partnership”. Modi’s meeting with Merkel comes after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s trip to India in March, which focused on boosting economic and strategic ties. Germany is India’s largest trade partner in the European Union bloc. Post Brexit, India’s reliance on Germany has increased along with France. 

Modi’s outreach seems to be a timely attempt to address the issue of India’s great power deficit, which appears to be one less of ability than of political will. India, an emerging great power, needs to assume her global responsibilities which might impose limitations on the options available to her for pursuing its own immediate national interests. How else can she become a viable strategic partner with the West? The recently concluded visit is a laudable effort to bring the ‘Indian elephant’ out of the corner and centre-stage, a place that the international community now wishes India to assume.