London | The UK and India pledged to work closely post-Brexit as the bilateral ties moved forward smoothly in 2018, a year in which India scored a major diplomatic victory when a British court ordered the extradition of liquor baron Vijay Mallya wanted back home for alleged bank fraud.
The year 2018 was an important one for India-UK ties, with Britain playing host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April and Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the summit.
Modi’s visit to the UK included bilateral talks with his British counterpart Theresa May, with senior diplomats keen to highlight that the prime minister was accorded special treatment on the sidelines of the summit, including an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
The visit marked the signing of the UK-India Tech Partnership, which played out through the course of the year to culminate in the first India-UK FutureTech Festival in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in December.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said the year 2018 saw the UK “prioritise” this partnership, as a mark of strength of two countries which share a relationship of “unique depth”.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to connect our tech strengths, ecosystems and growth, and will see real developments in the coming year,” a FCO spokesperson said. “We will continue to work closely together to ensure our relationship goes from strength to strength in 2019 and beyond,” the spokesperson said.
There is no doubt that the UK’s tumultuous exit negotiations with the EU monopolised most of the country’s focus, but India’s stand on Brexit remained consistent as Ruchi Ghanashyam took over from retired diplomat Y K Sinha as the Indian High Commissioner to the UK.
“The India-UK partnership is very old; it has stood the test of time and whatever happens to this Brexit process, whichever way it turns out, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that India and UK will remain important partners,” Ghanashyam declared in her very first address in London in November.
She arrived just as May’s own troubles over Brexit intensified, leading to a no-confidence vote in her leadership over the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the EU. With March 29, 2019, ear-marked as the formal Brexit Day, the UK remains on a countdown to strike a deal that ensures an orderly exit from the European economic bloc.
Some prominent Indian-origin MPs from her Conservative Party have joined in the Brexit rebellion throughout the year, with Shailesh Vara stepping down as Northern Ireland minister over a controversial Irish “backstop”, which critics feel would keep the UK tied to EU rules even after Brexit.
While May became accustomed to dealing with high-profile ministerial resignations over Brexit, including vocal Brexiteer Boris Johnson resigning as foreign secretary and two of her Brexit secretaries – David Davis and Dominic Raab – leaving in a huff, the 2018 will stand out as the year that she seemed to keep bouncing back, even surviving an attempted coup.
In a major boost to India’s efforts to bring back Mallya, Westminster Magistrates’ Court ordered his extradition. He is wanted in India for alleged bank fraud and money laundering amounting to an estimated Rs 9,000 crore.
There were enough celebrations to distract from the Brexit upheavals, as Prince Harry tied the knot with his American actress fiancee, Meghan Markle, in a grand ceremony at Windsor Castle in May. Mumbai-based Myna Mahila Foundation was among the six charities shortlisted by the royal couple to receive donations in lieu of their wedding presents.
Harry and Meghan are now expecting their first baby in Spring 2019 and have chosen Frogmore Cottage, near Windsor Castle, as their family home. The cottage has a curious British Raj era history, being the former home of Abdul Karim – Queen Victoria’s Indian aide and confidant when she was the Empress of India.
The cottage, which is undergoing a multi-million-pound refit, is likely to become part of the royal trail for Indian tourists visiting the UK over time.
The number of Indian tourists continued to rise, with the latest UK Office of National Statistics figures noting that Indians marked the largest visitor visa increase of all countries, at 41,224, to hit a total of 468,923 over the past year.
Skilled Indian professionals and students also registered a hike in the number of UK visas issued, a trend likely to continue as the UK is set for a revamp of its immigration policy to end free movement of people from within the EU following Brexit.
Immigration issues dominated the headlines, with the Home Office embroiled in the Windrush scandal involving Commonwealth citizens being denied settlement rights in the country due to the lack of documentation because they arrived in the UK before rules changed in 1971.
While the majority of those affected were from Caribbean countries, Indians were also among them. As many as 102 Indians were identified by a new Taskforce set up to deal with the crisis by UK home secretary Sajid Javid – who became the senior-most British Pakistani in government when he replaced Amber Rudd, who was forced to resign over the scandal.
Javid will remain in focus as India’s high-profile extradition request for Mallya sits on his desk for a sign-off following Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot ordering his extradition on December 10. It marked a major turning point in the case.
As there is a right of appeal against the decision in higher courts, Mallya’s extradition case will continue to play out well into 2019.