It is a confusing and uncertain time in Britain. The most
vociferous supporters of the Brexit vote, having done what they wished to, are
not much to be seen any more though apprehensions about where matters could be
leading and the true costs of the decision keep piling up. The British pound
has been wobbling and with it the economic health of the country. The carefree
prognostications that drove the Brexiteers have given way to a more sober sense
of reality. Nor does Europe seem to be in a mood to make it easy for UK: its
own future course has been made more complicated by the British vote, and there
are those who consider that the UK must pay the full price. Within the UK there
is an unmistakable feeling of hangover: the heady times are over and hard decisions
lie ahead. As yet the UK has not formally initiated what could be a prolonged
and costly negotiated withdrawal from Europe, and behind-the-scenes efforts
could be in progress to achieve separation with least damage to the UK’s
economic interests, which means a ‘soft exit’ that keeps in place some of the
essential links between the UK and its erstwhile European partners.

An unexpected twist to the drama has been added by the
British High Court which has required that any final decision on Brexit should
have the endorsement of the British Parliament. There are arcane constitutional
reasons for this judicial decision, and there are plenty of pro-EU MPs in the
UK Parliament whose voice may be heard in future discussion of the issue, but
what the UK High Court has required seems an act of legal tidying up rather
than a challenge to the referendum.

Among the less agreeable features of Brexit were the
parochial tendencies it threw up in the 
UK. Over the years that the UK has been part of the EU there has been a
great deal of immigration from other parts of Europe, especially the relatively
recent entrants from Eastern Europe. These new arrivals have sometimes
attracted adverse attention locally owing to their ‘foreign-ness’ which rubs up
against the historic insularity of Britain’s island race. This has had an
unsettling effect and created feelings of insecurity within established
communities. The many immigrants from India are also not immune from such
considerations although many have been in Britain for two or three generations
and by now have no other home. 
Expressions of local sentiment against outsiders may have served to
drive the government into adopting increasingly stringent rules to regulate
immigrant families and their reunification, though keeping them apart has
created resentment among the affected groups.

One must also take account of the tightened regime of entry
and stay in the UK for students and technical personnel from abroad, a large
proportion of whom are of Indian origin. With this, the stream of persons who
have earned their technical qualifications in the UK and gone on to work in
that country has been interrupted. Neither country can be too pleased, for
these are people who typically work in hi-tech sectors where their skills are
valued and may not be easily replaced but whose position has become vulnerable
in the harsher circumstances of today.

It is in these awkward circumstances that British Prime
Minister Theresa May’s visit to India took place. She came to office only
recently, in the aftermath of the Brexit developments that obliged her
predecessor to quit, and she has the difficult task before her of stabilizing
her divided country, repairing relations with Europe, and reversing the
economic slide that has afflicted the UK. As Home Secretary she was identified
with a tough immigration policy, in line with the changing perceptions and
demands of the Conservative government of which she was part, and now as Prime
Minister she can be expected to follow the same course. As her visit showed,
India may have hoped for an easier deal in this matter than the UK
Government  was ready to provide.

Nevertheless,with the many new challenges she has to face,
it is significant that the Indian visit was her first foreign trip outside the
EU. The initial challenges for the UK leader obviously lie nearer home where
there is much re-ordering to be done but she has identified India as a place
where fresh opportunities lie and need to be pursued.  The economic relationship between the two
countries has taken on an entirely fresh aspect in recent years, with India
having emerged as not just an important market for British goods but also as a
major investor. Behind the matter of visas and reciprocal access, which can
cause many complications, there is the important reality that some iconic
British companies are now owned and managed by Indians, who have made a big
success of their new opportunities and created a dynamic fresh component in the
bilateral relationship. The UK  is a
world leader in science and technology and offers many fresh possibilities of
new collaborations with India in these areas, British universities are among
the best anywhere, and there is every reason for both sides to develop and
strengthen the technological and academic links they have established over the
generations.

These are some of the prominent themes that were touched
upon during Mrs. May’s visit. India also stressed its wish to see sustained
international action to curb terrorism: this has become one of the lead items
in Prime Minister  Modi’s meetings with
foreign leaders, and it was only to be expected that the issue would feature
conspicuously in the top-level talks with the UK. This is not just a
theoretical matter in India-UK relations for the large moveable population with
close links on either side can be a source of difficulty in security matters.
Mr. Modi drew attention to the many well-heeled Indians who have taken
advantage of existing rules to establish themselves in the  UK and thereby evade accountability before
the Indian tax and other regulatory authorities.

Such issues are real even though they may not  disturb the basically well-balanced and
friendly structure of the India-UK relationship. There is depth of mutual
understanding between them which is often invoked by the leaders, most recently
when the two Prime Ministers met in Delhi: beyond the substantive agenda
centered on matters like trade, defence, investment, among others, there is a
mutual sympathy that reflects what they have shared over the years. The  UK Leader of the Opposition Jeremy
Corbyn,  spoke of what Indians had
contributed to British life over the last century, and called for the UK to
respect this legacy. It was an important reminder of what the two have in
common and how they should treat with each other.

 — Salman Haidar 

(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.)