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Rishi Sunak will have a tougher time than he thinks in India

Rishi Sunak, the first British leader of Indian descent, has to walk an unenviable political tightrope at this weekend’s G20 Summit in India. It is Sunak’s first visit to the country as prime minister, and Indians have given him the kind of welcome usually reserved for an all-conquering hero returning home. Sunak himself acknowledged that the trip was ‘special’. This mutual fawning aside, Sunak’s Indian roots actually make his task of securing the best trade deal for Britain in talks with India that little bit harder. 

Indians clearly love the idea that Sunak has risen to the top in Britain, treating him as one of their own, even though he was born in Hampshire. The story of his roots is what matters to Indians. Sunak’s parents are both of Indian origin, and came to the UK from east Africa in the 1960s. It also helps that his wife Akshata Murty, who is accompanying him on the trip, is the daughter of one of India’s richest families. Speaking to reporters on his way to Delhi, Sunak joked about being heralded in some quarters as India’s ‘son-in-law’, a reference to his wife’s prominent family. No one should be fooled by all this razzmatazz. Indians can trumpet Sunak’s roots as much as they like but ultimately this trip is about the hard politics of bilateral relations and a potential trade deal.

Sunak has been dealt a difficult hand in this regard. His Indian heritage means he cannot afford even the slightest perception, unfair or otherwise, that he is going easy on India and its leaders because of some sentimental attachment to the land of his forefathers. Such political calculations may well have informed Sunak’s decision not to pay a visit to his in-laws, who are based in India, citing a ‘lack of time’. Given the prominence of the family, as founders of Infosys – one of the country’s biggest software and outsourcing companies – any such visit could be open to being misconstrued. The harsh political reality is that Sunak needs to strike a tough tone in his discussions with India, one that leaves no room for even a scintilla of doubt about his ability to separate the politics from the personal.  

The prime minister is due to hold talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi over the weekend. The discussions are taking place on the sidelines of the G20 summit, where  the main agenda is climate change and the war in Ukraine. According to official figures, the trading relationship between the UK and India was worth £36billion in 2022/23, making India the UK’s 12th largest trading partner. Current projections suggest India could be the world’s third largest economy by 2050, so a trade deal is worth the effort. Both leaders will expect to make progress on some key sticking points during their discussions.

It is naive to think that Modi would offer concessions to Britain simply because of Sunak’s heritage

Sunak has already cautioned that securing an agreement is ‘not a given. This is sensible politics. Trade deals involve complex sets of negotiations, with plenty of back and forth on the details, often taking several years to finalise. It was always unrealistic to expect any agreement to be reached quickly.

India and the UK have made progress in some areas but the problem is that the outstanding issues are those which are most politically sensitive, dealing with visas, tariff reductions, and business services. India wants more the UK to make more visas available to its students and employees of Indian companies. The issue of visas remains a stumbling block for Sunak, who believes the current levels of migration are too high, and is well aware that many in his party would not take kindly to his ceding ground in this area. He is also keen for India to reduce its tariffs, which are among the most protectionist in the world.

The bottom line is that India wants a trade deal that serves its best interests and it is naive to think that Modi, a wily negotiator, would offer concessions to Britain simply because of Sunak’s heritage. Similarly, Sunak, for all his gushing comments about his return to his ancestral homeland, wants only what works best for Britain. If he does eventually secure a trade deal, this will be a political triumph in its own right. A personal victory achieved despite – not because of – his Indian roots.

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