Column | Chill in India-UK ties likely to thaw with Modi-Johnson meet

Indian PM, British PM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the annual G7 summit in Biarritz, south-west France Handout / INDIAN MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS / AFP

The British government has been given big emphasis to the maiden travels of its group of aircraft carrier warships led by the newly built 'HMS Elizabeth' to the Mediterranean and Asia in a big way.

The long travels of the new aircraft carrier, accompanied by ships from the navies of United States and Netherlands, is seen as a reminder of the sea powers of a country which commanded the largest empire for two centuries. The ships also traversed close to Taiwan to show that Britain would like to be a part of the group of naval powers which are coming together to take on the increasing presence of China in the waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Though Britain is not part of the Quad (comprising India, United States, Australia and Japan), it has just entered into a new defence pact with United States and Australia. This is apart from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between Britain, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand since 1941.

But the assertions of Britain are not liked by its close neighbour France which has several island territories in both the oceans. The latter recently lost a huge submarine deal signed by Australia with the United States and Britain.

For celebrating the presence of the carrier group off the Mumbai Port, the British government coincided the visits of its new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chief of Defence Staff General Nick Carter to India. Both visited Delhi and met with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, while Truss also had a meeting with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

India urges UK to resolve COVID-19 quarantine dispute
External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar meets new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in New York. Photo: Twitter @DrSJaishankar

Unusual development in Delhi

But eyebrows went up in Delhi's diplomatic circles when there was no word of Truss calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Neither government made any comment on whether an appointment was indeed sought for Truss to meet Modi, but it has been a long-time practice that the foreign and defence ministers of large economies and militaries like the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China — all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — are granted appointment with the Indian prime minister from the time of P V Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. The foreign ministers of Japan and Germany, old friends of India who are also trying to become permament members of the Security Council, also enjoy this privilege. However, when Indian foreign ministers visits these countries, there is no practice of getting an appointment with the Head of the Government normally.

In the United States only Yashwant Sinha, who was external affairs minister under Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, got a formal appointment with then President George W Bush in the White House. Modi had met Dominic Raab, the previous British foreign secretary, and also British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary, during their Delhi visits.

RT-PCR test on arrival, separate isolation for COVID positive cases: Centre's SOPs for UK flyers
Passengers wait in the arrival area after landing of a flight from United Kingdom at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, in Mumbai, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. New restrictions were put in place by authorities from 12:00 am for UK flights in the light of the new Covid-19 strain found in the country, which is said to be a super spreader and is claimed to be 70% more transmissible. Indian government has temporarily suspended all passengers' flights from the United Kingdom. (PTI Photo/Kunal Patil)

Travel norms that irked India

There was speculation that the Indian government was still weary of Britain after it recently placed Indian passport holders in the red category of visitors who had to undergo mandatory Covid-related quarantine upon arrival there. Further Britain refused to accept the certificates issued in India as proof of taking two doses of the anti-Covid vaccine. After a lot of difficulties faced by Indian travellers, including students, Britain budged and India was taken off the red list and the rules were relaxed. But this happened only after India announced reciprocal restrictions on British passport holders coming to Indian airports and seaports. The British High Commissioner in India Alex Ellis lobbied hard for relaxation of norms for Indian travellers.

The government sources said that Jaishankar had made clear to Truss that countries which were close allies of India should handle sensitive matters like travel, especially as there was heavy traffic either way between the two countries. But defence sources also said the presence of General Nick Carter in India at the same time was also important.

The British army chief was the one who in April had tried to break the ice between the then Ashraf Ghani government of Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army. Carter had persuaded Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed. Indian diplomats and security experts had closely watched

the outcome of these interactions, though it was claimed that General Carter used his long-term friendship with the Pakistan Army to improve relations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, before the withdrawal of coalition forces which happened in August. (Even as American and British troops left Afghanistan, President Ghani himself fled the country, while Vice-President Amrullah Saleh declared himself as president after withdrawing to the rebel controlled Panjshir Valley as the Taliban seized power.)

Sergei Lavrov
Sergei Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Russia attends the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Russian minister too skip meeting with PM

Another powerful foreign minister who did not meet Modi this year while on a visit to Delhi was Russian leader Sergey Lavrov when he made a quick trip in April to discuss the Afghan situation with Jaishankar. It was pointed out that Lavrov was spending less than 24 hours in India when Modi was busy with election campaigning in West Bengal. Further Lavrov had met Modi during a visit in January. But there was also a sensitivity as Lavrov was flying from Delhi to Pakistan capital Islamabad to meet Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mohammed Qureshi.

India does not like foreign leaders going to Pakistan either before or after a trip to Delhi. even though Truss did not call on Modi in Delhi, the prime minister is travelling to Britain next week for the climate summit at the invitation of his counterpart Boris Johnson, where the irritants in bilateral relations could get ironed out. 

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