Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official trip to India took place in the backdrop of Brexit talks. The prime minister was pinning hopes on a good deal with India to shore up the Brexit hopes. But her efforts to win the support of Indians were dashed when Modi and his top team insisted on changes in visa rules for highly skilled Indian professionals and students….writes Anasudhin Azeez
Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Delhi with one agenda in the kitty – TRADE. But on the other side Indians were ready with a list of issues in the agenda to discuss and get a deal. A trade deal with Britain was secondary for India. Technically UK is just one among the 28 European Union countries and India is monitoring the developments in the UK and the Euro zone. Besides Brexit, more troubles are brewing, like the rise of the far right in France, the forthcoming German elections and the Italian referendum.
As cross-border terrorism spoils the peace in Kashmir, India was looking for a strong ally in Britain to end the issue for ever. They were also looking for support from the former colonial master for a firm action against fugitives hiding in Britain. India, with one of the fastest growing economies, is also looking for avenues for its young population to upgrade their skills. A fair deal for its highly skilled professionals to work in the United Kingdom is also on their agenda. Indians were looking for a package, but what Mrs May put on the table is a one line agenda – Trade.
The British prime minister also annoyed the Indians by telling them to take back the illegals in the country to get a fair visa rule. Indians are not looking for any favours from Britain. Australia, the US and New Zealand are now the more favoured destinations for Indian students. UK’s loss is America’s gain. The number of Indian students studying in the US has gone up to over 165,000 during academic year 2015-16, a growth of 25 per cent over the previous year. According to the 2016 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, there are 165,918 students from India, making it the second leading country of origin among international students in the US. India accounts for one out of every six international students in the US. Approximately three-fifths of Indian students are at the graduate level and three-fourths are in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Even the Indian prime minister was pleading with May to relax rules for Indian students. “Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future. We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities,” Modi told May during the inauguration of Indo-UK Tech Summit. But May was firm on her strategy which was formulated during her Home Office days. The decision to put Indian students in the Net Migration Box dearly affected the British universities. The rise in tuition fees, the troublesome paperwork to get visa, besides the lack of post-study opportunities deter Indian students. Their numbers are almost half now. Just 20,000 from earlier figures of 40,000 plus.
Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, and other members of the academic brigade in the delegation were gobsmacked and furious when May and her core team defended the visa policy instead of uttering anything to please the Indian press or the politicians.
“She just wants free trade with India,” Sir Keith wrote in a blog. “Free trade means free trade, she says, good for all and nothing to do with students. She even insists that students should be labelled as migrants, which is completely potty. Even Nigel Farage didn’t want that. In any case, Indians feel doubly insulted by this position.”
India is a country with 65 per cent of the population below 35 years and 50 per cent of the population 25. They are global citizens of the new world and ambitious to explore and attain new skills. Families will sacrifice their precious savings for the education of their children. That is why the young Indians are flocking at embassies to seek visas to fulfil their parents’ dreams. Some may stay abroad, but majority will return. Who can withstand the lure of a 7 plus GDP rate? When the western economies are hovering over 1 per cent and 2 per cent, Indians are aiming at a double digit growth. They want the right skills to fuel the economy. They are looking towards Britain to acquire that because of the cultural bondage and the language. They want to follow the paths of Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Baba Ambedkar, Ramanujan etc. But Mrs May and her team are letting them down.
Sir Keith and others are campaigning against this. He is the co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign to welcome and value international students, staff and research. Over 100 UK universities are supporting the campaign.
“I will not speak of the real harm that these policies will do to cities across the UK, where students are vital drivers of the local economy. Others can speak of that. But what I want – what I need – to emphasise is how we are destroying hard-earned goodwill with a huge proportion of the world’s population. You should care about this. Your children’s jobs in the future could depend on it. So I’m going to work hard to make our education the very best for potential Indian students, and make the welcome as warm as possible in Sheffield.
“Sheffield students, leaders and I founded the #WeAreInternational campaign. I am damned proud of the students and staff across the UK who have joined us to show that we are still the nation that India can be friends with. And I will be working to make clear that the vast majority of Brits welcome students from India and don’t think of them as migrants – 91 per cent, in fact, in a recent survey. I will work to build collaborations with Indian universities and companies. We will continue to work together on cures for diseases and inventions that will help to make our planet more sustainable. But I must beg, and I do beg. Please listen to India before it is too late.”
Sir Keith, Lord Karan Billimoria, Mr Modi…people are appealing. But their appeals are falling on deaf years. As the world becomes a global village mobility is an issue for global citizens. We cannot separate free movement of people from free flow of goods, services and investment.
Mrs May defended the UK stance insisting the country already had a ‘good system’ for applications from India. “The figures show that we issue more work visas to India than (to) the US, Australia and China put together,” Mrs May said. “Nine out of 10 visa applications from India are already accepted. So we have, I believe, a good system.”
A good system? Britain is going to pay for that “good system.” Universities are already on the brink of collapse. Trade will not help Britain to mend that faults. While Britain is barred from signing bilateral trade deals with third countries until it has left the EU, Mrs May said that there were steps that can be taken immediately to ‘break down barriers and make it easier to do business’.
Britain and India need to ‘identify what more we can do now to unleash our businesses, industries, exporters and investors’, she said, adding: ‘This does not need to wait for us to leave the EU.’
In summary the visit inked business deals worth £1.2 billion and created 1,370 jobs. The visit also formulated a ministerial level committee to look into extradition and immigration issues. It also announced a new India-UK Urban Partnership to develop ‘smart cities.’
Among initiatives to foster trade, Indian tycoons and their families are to gain access to the Great Club programme which provides assistance with visa-processing, while an estimated 10,000 executives are to benefit from a Registered Traveller Scheme to speed their way past queues at UK airports. Benefits to 10,000 people in a country with a population of 1.3 billion!
May’s first mission to India included a business delegation of 33, besides decision makers from the government. The absence of Priti Patel, the Indian-origin International Development Secretary, was noticed by many. The charismatic ever-smiling Brexit poster girl could have opened new avenues for discussions.
During the Cameron era, the British machinery was fully geared up to engage with the Indian platoons on trade, diplomatic and cultural relations. It is always a mela time for journalists and there is no dearth of stories to file. How many stories can one file on trade and Brexit on a busy foreign mission? Mrs May is not Cameron and she has her own views and policies.
Dealing with India needs lots of preparations. Money is not a crucial factor for India or Indians, but relations. Indian leaders, especially the present government, believe in Karma. They want to do Good Karma for the youngsters. They will go an extra mile for that. The route to enter the heart of India is not through airports or seaports with huge cargo, but a simple candy to please the new generation.
India never let their partners down. They are the largest democracy and they respect friendship. Mrs May missed that opportunity in her first mission. There are many lessons to learn from recent history. Even Cameron failed to convince Modi to sign a multi-billion deal for Typhoon. Modi enjoyed English hospitality at Chequers, but chose France’s Rafael for the Indian Air Force. A friend in need is a friend indeed. In the present scenario Indians could very well be that friend, an all-weather friend.