By Lord Meghnad Desai
LIKE a 1950s Bollywood romance, the scheduled meeting between the prime ministers of the UK and India keeps on getting disrupted.
Each time they have planned to meet, some obstacle has intervened. The UK prime minister was scheduled to attend the Republic Day (January 26 parade) celebrations in India, and this week it was announced that Boris Johnson will not travel to India to meet Narendra Modi.
In India, the Covid situation has deteriorated rapidly. The rate of infection is rising and in the capital New Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a week’s lockdown from Monday (19).
The country has multiple concerns – shortage of medical oxygen and vaccines, as well as debates about which “brand” is the best. Across India, chief ministers are clamouring for priority for their respective states.
Of course, in the middle of all this, the main business of government cannot be neglected, which is to fight elections wherever and whenever they occur. There have been polls in four states in recent weeks – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal. The crunch race is in West Bengal, where there are two more phases of voting remaining. Nothing, not even the pandemic, can stop India electioneering. Social distancing can wait. Political persuasion is the job of the day.
Johnson’s India trip is, of course, about a UK-India trade treaty, which Britain needs badly post Brexit. But nothing is new and nothing is likely to happen which has not been rehearsed already. For years, the India-EU treaty has been under negotiation. When New Labour was in power, the issues under consideration were whisky, entry visas and UK demands that legal services be open to entry by UK firms. These issues held up the treaty. (The rest of the EU just watched with bemusement).
Now we are back in a jugalbandi, one on one, with the same music being played. Of course, the point is a symbolic, not a substantial, one. Face-to-face, ‘undistanced’ meetings are highly prized. Summits are made of such moments.
But they are totally unnecessary. They only involve the big bosses signing a treaty whose every word and comma has been gone over by sherpas and junior ministers. Nothing can change now.
Post-Covid, it is even more unnecessary for face-to-face meetings to take place. They may as well Zoom it instead of flying thousands of miles one way or another and bumping elbows in greeting.
But can Johnson extract a cut in the duty on malt whisky while Modi extracts a few hundred more entry visas for Indian students wishing to prosper abroad? In a way, these are small gains in material terms, but highly symbolic in value. It is the scenery and the background music which will attract attention – if and when the visit does take place.
For years, the most contentious element has been the UK’s desire to open up India’s legal services market to competition. I know this because 20-odd years ago, I was asked to soften up the incoming (Indian) law minister for the meeting in London. Obviously, I did not succeed. Lawyers’ privileges in India have been hard earned and diligently preserved over the years. There is no way the Free Trade Agreement can change that situation.
And so we have to wait for the Johnson-Modi meeting. As they use to say here during the Second World War, is your journey really necessary?