It’s Time to Rethink Our Relations with India. It is Getting Too Close to Russia

Should we really be negotiating a trade deal with a country that may soon be producing weapons with Moscow?

Isabel Oakeshott | 31 December 2023
No image

On the day after Boxing Day, while most MPs were on the sofa eating leftovers, an extraordinary meeting was taking place in Moscow.

Only two countries were involved – Russia and India – but what they discussed has profound implications for the UK. On the agenda seemed to be nothing less than the shaping of a new world order. Behind closed doors, two men – Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Indian counterpart – made progress on an extraordinary deal, under which India would tacitly support President Putin’s towering ambitions. After lengthy talks, the pair emerged to trumpet an ever closer partnership.

“A relationship at every level” is how the Indian Foreign Minister put it gushingly; while Lavrov talked of a “special privileged strategic partnership.” Both men seemed to imply that local difficulties such as the illegal invasion of Ukraine will do nothing to sour their “really very positive feelings” towards each other. At a joint press conference, the Indian foreign minister showed little sign of discomfort as Lavrov spewed forth his typical anti-Western talking points. If anything, he seemed inclined to agree.

“The world is not what it was. The global order will have to change,” he mused, acknowledging Moscow’s determination to bring about a “multipolar order,” in which Russia – (and presumably India too) will be more powerful. To that end, the men are working on several joint projects.

But far worse was to come, as the pair said they had discussed plans to cooperate on the production of modern weaponry. Doubtless, the fruit of such an approach would be bad news for Ukraine. It is hard to imagine a more shameless two fingers to the West, or overstate the significance of this announcement, which blows a hole in India’s purported neutrality over the conflict. It seems India’s premier, Narendra Modi, has chosen a side – and it is not ours.

The timing of this strategic pivot could hardly be more awkward. Right now, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is desperately trying to secure a free trade deal with India. The last thing he needs is a diplomatic rift, or an ugly spotlight being cast on who he is really dealing with here. However, the growing proximity between a country with whom we are effectively at war and a country we trust as a key strategic ally makes questions about the wisdom and desirability of a trade deal between India and the UK increasingly difficult to ignore.

To date, Sunak has turned a wilful blind eye to the terrible truth about India under its hard line leadership. As the countdown to the general election begins, he desperately needs political wins, as well as evidence that Brexit is working. As a result, he seems to have been willing to gloss over the harsh reality that India under Modi is not a harmonious land at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Yes, it is making remarkable economic strides, powering forth to become one of the world’s largest economies – but its reputation as the world’s largest democracy is increasingly a myth. The grim reality is that Modi’s time as prime minister has been marked by reports of appalling human rights abuses, including attacks on the free press.

Considering the scale of the horrors taking place – from the sudden suspension of 141 opposition MPs on December 19, to the grotesque allegations of abuse of Muslim and Sikh minorities – the casual ignorance among our own politicians about what India has become is shocking.

Even among MPs who take a keen interest in foreign affairs, there is either a lazy assumption that India is a well functioning democracy, or a reflexive brushing aside of clear evidence to the contrary.

In the last few days alone, Modi’s party has rammed through sweeping reforms to India’s criminal justice legislation, paving the way for even harsher crackdowns. The biggest shake up for 140 years focuses on enhancing punishments for offences that endanger national security – which might well enable more use of the death penalty.

The draconian new measures were passed while the opposition literally protested outside. No wonder the Democracy Index published by the Economist magazine placed India in the “flawed democracy” category, while the think tank Freedom House considers it only “partly free,” noting rising persecution of the Muslim population and harassment of journalists, NGOs, and critics.

“Unfortunately, we have to start writing obituaries for parliamentary democracy in India,” was how Congress MP Shashi Tharoor put it.

Modi’s recent appearance via video link at the Indian Space Research Organisation showed why so many assume he is a nice guy. There to mark the first successful landing of a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon, he knew the world was watching. Smiling benevolently and waving a tiny paper flag of the kind children stick on sandcastles, the 73-year-old exuded sweet grandad vibes.

But this is the same man who has been labelled the “Butcher of Gujarat” over allegations he did not do enough to prevent the massacre of Muslims in his state in 2002, and has been associated with discrimination against minorities ever since.

Of course, the UK does deals with regimes that do not share all our values are among our most important allies. Long standing concerns about Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record, fuelled by the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have not stopped us signing multi million defence deals with the Kingdom, nor buying its oil.

But under a young and visionary leader, Saudi is manifestly modernising and becoming arguably more benign. By contrast, India appears to be backsliding, while cosying up to international pariahs.

Assuming Sunak does not give an inch on visas (the last thing this country needs is more immigration) a free trade agreement still offers the UK huge potential benefits. Within the next decade, India’s middle class is expected to double – representing a vast new pool of customers for British financial, creative, digital and professional services.

Unfortunately, Modi’s top trade negotiators may be otherwise occupied. In between ranting about the mistakes of the West in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan this week, Lavrov let slip that Russia and India are about to resume negotiations for their own free trade deal. This is all happening at exactly the same time as Sunak was hoping to capture Modi’s full attention.

If the UK-India talks collapse as a result, at least Rishi Sunak will be leaving Downing St with remnants of his integrity intact.

Isabel Oakeshott is the writer.

This article was originally published on The Telegraph.  
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.