Declaring an interest as someone of half-Indian extraction, I’ve argued on occasion that, whilst much attention is given to China’s emergence as a world power, both military and economic, there should be more attention given to its democratic counterpart, India. It’s an uphill struggle, I acknowledge, but still an important one.
In terms of the domestic debate here, India falls under the category of “obvious trading partner” post-Brexit, i.e. someone we can increase exports to. Now, putting aside the fact that United Kingdom governments have treated Indian citizens in a manner akin to leprosy victims in terms of visa access over the years, the action of Theresa May in effectively vetoing the proposed EU/India Free Trade Agreement, is hardly an encouragement to the Indian Government to prioritise us over, say, the European Union.
But, of course, some of the more lacking in self-awareness supporters of Brexit believe that, as part of the (jolly old) Empire, the Indians will be only too eager to sign something - fifth largest economy in the world, you know, Commonwealth ties, old boy.
Except that, according to the Centre for Business Economics and Research, with its Conservative-friendly world view, Britain’s economy is already smaller than India’s, and with India’s trend growth rate far higher than that of the United Kingdom, the gap will grow fast. In whose interests is a trade deal then, who will be able to drive the harder bargain? Not a difficult question to answer, is it?
Any trade deal will require significant visa liberalisation, and thus more Indians coming to Britain to work and study - a tough sell to those who voted for Brexit, and indeed for the Conservatives, in order to reduce immigration. And the net figure will be worse still, as the chances are that few British citizens will wish to make the reverse journey.
It gets better though. By 2034, India is predicted to be the third largest economy, with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh in the top twenty-five. And they know that. The bargain will get harder, not easier, and the Hindu nationalist administration that runs India is hardly likely to hold back from using that growing power imbalance to settle some old scores.
Meanwhile, the European Union will be keen to gain preferential access to the Indian market. It has quite a lot to offer, isn’t as attractive to Indians seeking to work abroad but offers plenty of opportunities for the rapidly growing number of middle-class Indians to spend money as tourists. It also offers access to a market six times larger and, in significant cases, wealthier than that of the United Kingdom.
Negotiations with the Modi administration should be interesting, and something of an eye opener for the Johnson-led Conservative Government. How they respond to the challenge may be a guide to the future economic prospects of the United Kingdom, and the ability of the Conservatives to deliver their rather generous promises.
They’d better learn fast...