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Keynote Address by External Affairs Minister at Policy Ex-change, London on “India & U.K. in the post-Covid World”

May 06, 2021

Thank you, Lord Godson
Distinguished Guests
Everybody else in cyber space who is clocked in


It is a great pleasure really to join you today this evening at Policy Exchange to speak on India and UK in the post-Covid world. These are difficult times and even the format of this gathering is not something that we would have contemplated earlier. But the issues on which I share my thoughts today are more lasting. They are issues which contemporary challenges – if anything - have made more relevant.

2. Just 48 hours ago, our Prime Ministers held a virtual summit that has truly redefined the contours of our relationship. They agreed on an ambitious roadmap for 2030 that sets forth their vision of cooperation in great detail. It involves connecting our countries and people through all possible avenues, including closer political contacts, deeper economic and financial exchanges, greater skills and education flows, stronger research and innovation partnerships, and of course, nurturing the living bridge, that is such a powerful bond between us. Underlying this exercise is a larger convergence at how we look at the world and the grapple with issues that both nations deal with every day. This is expressed in our working together in defence and security, in undertaking climate action and development partnerships, in responding to terrorism and radicalization, or indeed, in how we approach pandemics and cyber challenges. In all of this, our ability to cooperate comfortably derives in very large measure from common values, similar practices and some shared history.

3. The Modi-Johnson Summit, as I noted earlier, has pro-duced a very detailed roadmap that will guide policy makers and implementers in the coming days in the expansion of our ties. Equally significantly, it saw the launch of an Enhanced Trade Partnership that committed to negotiating a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement while improving market access. An understanding on Migration and Mobility that I actually signed with Home Secretary Priti Patel was also concluded that enhances the basis for talent flows, so essential for our knowledge economies. And not least, we concluded today, I signed it with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, a partnership on Global innovation and that to my mind symbolizes the enormous potential of our relationship. It was very much in keeping with the times that we agreed on an action plan on health and life sciences, that includes cooperation on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Some results of our on-going collaboration have already helped address the Covid challenge; its possibilities are obviously very much more.

4. Significant as these developments are, you could rightly ask me why they should stand out in a world with so many transformational events. The literal answer is, of course, that they each represent an important element of a larger and con-sequential mosaic that is now coming into being. The broader reply would be that they reflect positively a changing percep-tion in each country of the other, and indeed, of the world. Both nations have undergone a sea-change in recent years, each in their own way, that help us reimagine our ties today. Where the UK is concerned, it is clearly a very different polity in the aftermath of the Brexit. As for India, decisive changes since 2014 that reflect its national character, diversity and democratic urges more accurately have made it a more confi-dent partner. And it is precisely in that evolution, as also the changing nature of world politics, that holds the key to our re-lationship.

5. From India’s viewpoint, there are many UKs that we seek to engage simultaneously: the Global Britain, the Atlantic UK, even the European one after Brexit, the City of London, the non-London UK, the diaspora one, the innovation and education UK, and of course the strategic and historical UKs. The internal balance amongst them has clearly shifted as a result of Brexit and the global aspect is today understandably much more in the forefront. The Integrated Review locates UK as a Euro-Atlantic actor with an increasing stake in the Indo-Pacific. This obviously makes it much more relevant to Indian strategic calculations. There are regions in the world where UK has historical interests and influence. Some of them, such as the Gulf or I would even say South East Asia, are also places where India’s profile and equities have grown very visibly in the last few decades. Even in the Indo-Pacific, greater visibility of a player like UK respecting a rules-based order only contributes to stability. I should add that the recommendations of your Indo-Pacific Commission are therefore extremely timely in this respect. Given the rebalancing and multipolarity that characterises the contemporary world order, it is natural for two powers such as us to explore greater convergence. That we have a shared past, may sometimes be a mixed blessing; but vision and will can certainly help put it to good use. The more objectively the two nations perceive each other’s role and contribution in the larger arena, the stronger is the case for a serious strategic relationship.

6. For that to happen, it is equally important that there is a proper understanding of the New India that is in the making. Seven decades of an animated and effective democracy have taken both policy making and aspirations well beyond the tra-ditional elite. The result may be a more assured and authentic India, but it is also one with a larger ambition and a stronger determination to realise its goals. This India is focused on outcomes and open to working purposefully with others in that regard. The many UKs that I spoken about have much to offer India, whether it is in terms of technology, resources, opportunities and best practices, or for that matter, in making the world a safer and better place. In turn, India holds its own attractions for UK, be it as a talent pool, a growing market, an incubator of fresh ideas and innovation or as a more influential player on the world stage. All said and done, we are complementary societies and economies who each have strengths relevant to the other. Bringing them together more effectively is to our mutual advantage. A Global UK is probably more likely to do so than its previous incarnation, just as a New India is more forward looking than previously. In that sense, we could be ready to approach each other with clearer heads and fresher eyes to realize a shared set of goals in a more turbulent world. But these will not be without challenges, because convergence is still not congruence. Our own inhibitions will be a factor, as also perhaps the growing complexity of world politics.

7. As we look ahead, we must consciously make history work positively for the growth of the relationship. The Indian diaspora is the most visible manifestation of that and this Living Bridge must be carefully and continuously nurtured. The intuitive comfort that we have as societies is also expressed in business and the flow of talent. In fact from my own previous life in the corporate sector, I perhaps know it better than most. When it comes to strategy and politics, we must strive to align closely for global good, never presuming that it will happen by itself. An updating of the traditional outlook towards our region with which U.K. remains closely associated will off course be extremely helpful to that process.

8. Looking at new horizons may have been facilitated by po-litical developments at home. But an even more impelling factor is the compulsions of the international relations of the day. We naturally approach them with many similarities, being pluralistic societies, political democracies and as market economies. At one level, we are dealing with a more globalized and technology-driven world that encourages greater inter-dependence and inter-penetration. But at the same time, recent events have created a sharper awareness about interests, values and practices. Both of us have been impacted by the key challenges that the current order faces, whether it is observance of rules, restraints and norms or the responsible and moderate practice of faith. Really global challenges like terrorism and climate change can also be much more effectively addressed if in fact the two of us cooperate much more strongly.

9. The Covid era has accelerated many of the changes in the making. Indeed, whether it is our scientists working together, our pharma business producing in collaboration or the generosity of the support the U.K. has currently extended to India in an hour of need, there are larger lessons from each experience. Covid has also brought to the forefront globally issues of trust and transparency, in fact, I would say of reliability and resilience as well. The pandemic has highlighted the risks of globalization, even though it has driven new opportunities for cooperation. It has helped make a more compelling case for working together, obviously in public health and R&D, but equally so, for secure supply chains and in global governance. Our partnership was even otherwise getting ready for an upgrade; the new context has given it a greater urgency.

10. Durable ties in history have always required vision, values and leadership. Today, in India and the UK, we have two Prime Ministers who have demonstrated their ability to go beyond orthodoxy and chart a bolder course for our ties. They have identified in our many convergences, a set of powerful driving factors that can not only take our cooperation to a higher level but have a resonance far beyond its bilateral benefits. The world is watching the resurgence of an important historical relationship and I am confident that working with our British partners, we will deliver fully on its promise. Thank you for your attention.

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