Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made many sudden and surprising decisions: some felicitous, others disastrous. Among the former were invitations to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to attend his 2014 swearing-in and his visit to Lahore in 2015; among the latter were demonetisation and the ‘Namaste Trump’ spectacle last February.
Yet to be defined in either category is his startling invitation to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, due to the ravages of COVID-19 mutations in the U.K., has expressed his inability to attend a truncated version of India’s Republic Day parade this month.
Mr. Johnson is a colourful and controversial character, often portrayed in the British media as a clown, but no one can doubt his capacity for manoeuvre and staying power.
Choosing a chief guest
The nomination of a chief guest for the Republic Day parade is the Prime Minister’s exclusive gift, and he or she is not known to consult others in or outside the Cabinet. American President Donald Trump was Mr. Modi’s first choice for January 2019 but the honour eventually fell to Mr. Trump’s alter ego, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Mr. Modi’s selections are revealing: U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, French President Francois Hollande in 2016, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates in 2017, the ASEAN leaders in 2018, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro in 2020, and Mr. Johnson for 2021.
With 193 countries in the United Nations, the Prime Minister’s choices have mostly been leaders identified with the Western camp.
Besides this, the invitation to Britain was the sixth to that country, more than to any other nation.
India has a shared past with Britain and needs to chart a different shared future, now that Britain has left the European Union (EU).
One joint enterprise will be as members of the UN Security Council where Britain has permanent status and India holds a non-permanent seat this year and next.
And this year, Mr. Johnson will be hosting India as an invitee to the G-7, and the UN Climate Change Conference.
There is much in common between Mr. Modi’s recent invitees, Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson.
All their countries have been ravaged by the virus and each of them has been infected with COVID-19.
They are all populist nationalists advocating ‘make my country great again’ and ‘my country first’.
Their brand of democratic politics is self-centred and impervious to criticism.
Mr. Johnson propelled himself to British national politics through leadership of the Brexit campaign in 2016, and to the prime ministership by leading a revolt against his predecessor Theresa May who had promised a friction-free Brexit.
He has now delivered one that is tariff- and quota-free and allegedly “takes back control over our money, borders, laws, trade, and our fishing waters,” but has potential for friction both with the EU and domestically.
Brexit will never cease to divide Britain and already causes tension between Whitehall and two of the devolved regions, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Mr. Modi visited the U.K. in 2015 when six major agreements were concluded. It is unlikely that any assessment has been made of the implementation of those accords, but in contemporary diplomacy, it is common for a raft of new treaties to be superimposed on existing ones even where there is insufficient progress.
A fortuitous invite
From Britain’s point of view, Mr. Modi’s invitation to its Prime Minister was fortuitous because Brexit necessitates that every effort be made to seek commercial advantage in Asian countries with high growth rates. India has been fruitlessly negotiating a trade agreement with the EU since 2007, during which Britain was considered the main deal-breaker.
The EU wanted duty reductions on autos, wines and spirits and wanted India to open financial sectors such as banking and insurance, postal, legal, accountancy, maritime and security and retail.
India, as always, sought free movement for service professionals.
The same obstacles with post-Brexit Britain will arise, because the export profile of both countries is predominantly services-oriented.
In response to free movement for professionals, Britain will refer to its new points-based system for immigrants, while after withdrawing from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, India is cautious about negotiating any new trade agreement, and will place greater stress on aspects related to country of origin and percentage of value addition in exports.
Therefore, when the time comes for a discrete agreement with Britain, the two countries may settle for a limited one perhaps covering pharmaceuticals, financial technology, chemicals, defence production, petroleum and food products.
India-U.K. links are substantial. One and a half million persons of Indian origin reside in Britain, 15 of them are Members of Parliament, three in Cabinet and two holding high office as Finance and Home Ministers. Before COVID-19, there were half a million tourists from India to Britain annually and twice that figure in the reverse direction.
Around 30,000 Indians study in Britain despite restrictive opportunities for post-graduation employment.
Britain is among the top investors in India and India is the second-biggest investor and a major job creator in Britain.
India has a credit balance in a total trade of $16 billion, but the level is below India’s trade with Switzerland, Germany or Belgium.
In one aspect of his invitation to Mr. Johnson, Prime Minister Modi was remarkably prescient.
In November last year, when the invitation was extended, there were short odds against Mr. Johnson continuing as Prime Minister beyond March this year.
With the EU-British trade agreement concluded in the dying hours of 2020, the betting now is that Mr. Johnson will lead his Conservative Party into the next election in 2024 as Prime Minister.
Mr. Modi would now be well advised to cut back further on Republic Day celebrations, in recognition of the country’s sufferings during the past year.