Diplomatic Dance: Starmer’s Tango with UK-India Relations

His focus on inclusive diplomacy acknowledges the significant role of the British-Indian community and aims to address their concerns through constructive engagement.

By Anurag Punetha

Welcome to the grand theatre of international relations, where Keir Starmer, the UK’s new Prime Minister, takes centre stage. This isn’t just another political shuffle; it’s a high-stakes performance that could redefine the UK-India relationship. Let’s delve into Starmer’s diplomatic dance.

Picture this: A leaflet flutters in the wind, causing a storm that ripples across continents. It’s 2021, and Labour’s ill-fated campaign strategy has just set the British-Indian community ablaze. Fast forward to today, and we find Keir Starmer, Labour’s new maestro, stepping onto the world stage. Can he choreograph a new dance between the UK and India, or will he stumble over the ghosts of Labour’s past?

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Act I: The Misstep

This story opens with a political faux pas. Labour’s controversial leaflet, featuring Modi and Johnson in an awkward handshake, didn’t just ruffle feathers – it caused a full-blown peacock revolt. The message was clear: Labour had two left feet when it came to Indian diplomacy.

In 2021 the backlash was swift, with many in the British-Indian community feeling alienated and offended. This incident underscored the delicate nature of UK-India relations and the potential pitfalls of political messaging. Keir Starmer, though Labour’s knight in shining pragmatism, promises to “take the heat out of politics” and forge a “new strategic partnership with India.”

His vision includes collaboration on global security, climate change, and economic growth. Starmer’s approach represents a significant shift from the previous Labour leadership, emphasising diplomacy and practical engagement over ideological posturing. He aims to rebuild trust with the Indian community in the UK and strengthen bilateral ties with India. This incident shows how political strategies can inflame sentiments among the Indian diaspora.

Starmer, as the new UK Prime Minister, must address Labour’s historical tensions with India while fostering a constructive bilateral relationship. His leadership offers an opportunity to reset these relations, moving away from past missteps and building a more positive and collaborative future.

Starmer must navigate historical tensions – Kashmir, minorities, Khalistan – through constructive engagement. His cool approach should be like a master illusionist keeping all balls in the air while maintaining a calm demeanour. These issues are deeply rooted in historical and political contexts, and any misstep could have significant repercussions.

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Keir Starmer will also have to keep in mind that the India of 2024 is not the India of 1990. The then leadership of England could have easily suppressed India’s concerns. Narendra Modi has come and adopted a strong and assertive foreign policy over the last decade. Particularly in the past five years, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s cryptic replies and statements have created a sensation at the international level, earning respect among Indians. Whether responding to Canada in its own language or mirroring the US’s policy towards India, India’s stance has been assertive and clear.

On issues like Palestine and Israel, and maintaining an impartial role in the tensions between Ukraine and Russia, India has stood its ground despite criticism from the European Union. Therefore, the British Prime Minister must remember that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge; this is no longer an India that can be easily controlled or manipulated. Any attempt to do so could backfire.

Labour’s past interactions with India have been fraught with tension, especially concerning Kashmir and the treatment of minorities. Labour’s support for pro-Khalistan elements adds another layer of complexity. The election of pro-Khalistan Sikh leader Amritpal Singh and Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdul Rashid to the Lok Sabha reflects the nuanced political landscape Starmer must navigate. These figures represent significant and contentious issues within Indian politics, and their prominence could complicate efforts to strengthen UK-India ties.

Post-Brexit Britain needs new partners, and India’s economic rhythm is irresistible. Starmer aims for an economic ballet, combining British ingenuity with Indian innovation in emerging tech sectors. The UK’s departure from the European Union has necessitated a reevaluation of its global trade relationships, and India, with its burgeoning economy and technological advancements, presents a valuable opportunity.

Starmer envisions a future where British and Indian businesses collaborate on cutting-edge projects, from green energy solutions to digital innovations. This economic partnership could not only boost both economies but also create jobs and foster technological advancements.

Starmer’s pragmatic and centrist stance represents a departure from Labour’s radical elements. He aims to “take the heat out of politics,” signalling a commitment to diplomacy and balanced international relations. His vision for a “new strategic partnership with India” emphasises collaboration on global security, climate change, and economic growth. This approach seeks to align UK-India relations with broader international objectives, fostering a sense of shared purpose and mutual benefit.

Starmer recognises the importance of strengthening trade ties with India, particularly post-Brexit. He supports an India-UK Free Trade Agreement and highlights potential collaboration in emerging technologies. His focus on inclusive diplomacy acknowledges the significant role of the British-Indian community and aims to address their concerns through constructive engagement. This includes adopting a balanced stance on contentious issues like Kashmir, emphasising bilateral dialogue and human rights while steering clear of polarising rhetoric.

The potential economic benefits of a closer UK-India partnership are substantial. Trade between the two countries has been growing steadily, but there is still significant untapped potential. By removing trade barriers and fostering a more collaborative business environment, both nations stand to gain economically. Starmer’s vision includes leveraging India’s expertise in sectors like information technology, pharmaceuticals, and renewable energy to complement the UK’s strengths in finance, education, and scientific research.

Starmer’s leadership offers a chance to redefine UK-India relations. By focusing on pragmatic economic collaboration and strategic alignment, he aims for deeper bilateral cooperation. This contrasts with the inward-looking policies of the recent Conservative regime, positioning the UK as a proactive and reliable partner for India. The emphasis on mutual interests and shared goals could help to overcome historical tensions and build a more resilient and forward-looking partnership.

Overcoming Labour’s “anti-India” perception requires sustained diplomatic efforts and tangible policy shifts. Building trust with the Indian government and diaspora is crucial. Navigating UK domestic politics, especially with the British-Indian community’s influence, necessitates careful policymaking. Starmer must demonstrate a genuine commitment to addressing their concerns and fostering a positive relationship with India.

Starmer’s ascent heralds a potential reset in UK-India relations. His pragmatic approach, focused on economic collaboration and strategic alignment, presents a promising pathway for renewed bilateral ties. Overcoming historical tensions and building trust will require sustained engagement and inclusive policymaking. As Labour navigates these challenges under Starmer, the future of UK-India relations holds promise for deeper cooperation and mutual benefit.

As UK-India relations unfold, the audience watches closely. Will Starmer earn a standing ovation or face criticism? His pragmatic approach could redefine ties, but even the most graceful dancers occasionally step on toes. One thing is certain – this geopolitical spectacle will be one to watch. Starmer’s success will depend on his ability to navigate these complex dynamics while maintaining a focus on shared interests and mutual respect.

Author: Anurag Punetha is a New Delhi-based Senior journalist with over 25 years of experience covering Indian foreign policy, sports, and politics. He currently serves as the Head of Media at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), India’s premier art institution.

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