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Overpromising and underdelivering…That’s no way to do a trade deal with India

Overpromising and underdelivering…That’s no way to do a trade deal with India

When Winston Churchill heard about the Nazi-Soviet Pact in October 1939, he didn’t struggle to understand the reasons behind what was essentially an ideological aberration: the Soviet Union was, he said, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, so there was simply no purpose trying to fathom what it was up to. And, of course, he was right. Sometimes the sheer complexity and mystery of the slow quadrille of international diplomacy is just too difficult to understand, so it’s better to focus on what we can hope to fathom. The UK’s Rwandan deportation programme, for example, now enthusiastically wrapped up inside the enigma of Suella Braverman’s dreams … Some things are just too difficult to understand, and Ms Braverman’s dreams are one of them.


Not so, however, that little trickle of UK Foreign Policy currently striving to become an Indian Free Trade Deal…we pretty much know exactly what’s happening here because there’s nothing at all enigmatic, riddle-like, or wrapped up in what is essentially an atavistic mixture of colonial bluster and chutzpah. The grizzled team of Whitehall negotiators currently working on the deal might hope that a policy of overpromising and under delivering will serve as a guiding star in their post-Brexit world (although, frankly, I doubt it ), but this brand of childlike simplicity was never likely to succeed in the face of modern geopolitical complexities, especially when the fellow on the other side of the negotiating table is Narendra Modi…a wily old fox if ever there was one.


But what exactly do we mean by “overpromising and under delivering” in the context of the Indian Trade Talks?


Diwali Comes and Goes

Well, for a start, two Prime Minister’s ago (in April), Boris Johnson blustered back from Delhi promising a “Deal by Diwali”, which arguably makes for a good headline, but trade deals are notoriously complicated and take years (often decades) to complete: added to which the UK hadn’t negotiated a new trade deal of its own for more than fifty years, until it lumbered into its pact with Australia (more of which in a moment), so the relevant UK expertise was either thin on the ground or non-existent. India, on the other hand, has been negotiating trade deals for more than seventy years and has all the necessary skills in abundance. So, Boris got his headline, his photograph wearing a turban, and his moment in the media sun, but he never got his trade deal. It was all so much hot air.


By the time Diwali rolled around in October, he’d been turfed out of the office and replaced by the feckless Liz Truss (one Prime Minister ago): and a mere two weeks before Diwali on 24 October, Liz was barking furiously that the deal could still be done (…no problem at all, it was just a question of getting all the pages in the right order and finding a big enough stapler. But of course, it wasn’t…so Diwali came and went.


Now the third UK Prime Minister in under a year has taken office and seems to have woken up to the complexities his predecessors were incapable of grasping in their pursuit of a “high ambition” strategy: not least that the new trade deal with Australia (masterminded by Liz Truss… and I’m using the word “masterminded” loosely here) had turned out to be full of holes: according to former environment secretary George Eustice, this was because “arbitrary limits had been set for the conclusion of the deal”. Liz had been caught out overpromising again. And it’s difficult not to feel the latent Eustice anguish when he whimpered that the Australian masterwork “wasn’t actually a very good deal for the UK at all”. Talk about under-delivering…


No stranger to subcontinental wiles himself, Rishi Sunak has now called for the Indian talks to be slowed down: looking to improve the existing draft (such as it is) on the basis that the UK should not “sacrifice quality for speed”. 


Lord knows what they’re making of all this over in New Delhi…


Especially as one of the key areas, Sunak is said to be targeting services between the UK and India, which will, in turn, re-open the running sore of UK Visa liberalisation (a core and consistent demand of the Indian negotiating team). At the G20 talks last month, Sunak offered 3,000 more two-year visas for young Indian professionals as an extra inducement to better terms, but that’s unlikely to cut any ice given the “inducement” is already part of the memorandum of understanding, and that’s been in place for over a year. Offering something you’ve already given isn’t exactly the best Christmas present…try testing it out on your wife (or husband…or anyone for that matter).


And if that isn’t all difficult enough, Suella Braverman (no less) took some time out from dreaming of Rwanda to say she has “reservations” about the existing deal because it would increase Indian migration into the UK: I wonder whether she ran that one by Rishi before marching off angrily to her local radio studio.


But, on the bright side

It’s not all doom and gloom, though…


At the G20 Summit, and specifically to India, Rishi Sunak acknowledged that “The Indo-Pacific Region is increasingly crucial for our security and prosperity. It is teeming with dynamic and fast-growing economies, and the next decade will be defined by what happens in this region…I know first-hand the incredible value of the deep cultural and historical ties we have with India and am pleased that even more of India’s brightest young people will now have the opportunity to experience all that life in the UK has to offer – and vice versa – making our economies and societies richer.”


He got that one right … Let's hope he can now deliver on what those opportunities have to offer.

Executive Overview

The “on-off” trade talks between the UK and India have become something of a puzzle, but there’s nothing a renewed sense of realism and purpose can’t fix…let’s hope Rishi Sunak can now provide both and help unlock the vast potential of future trade.

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Suchit Punnose

Suchit Punnose / About Author

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