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When Boris Johnson visited Mumbai in 2012, there was no shortage of sporting action.
Riding high after his star turn at the London Olympics earlier that year, the then Mayor of London played cricket on Chowpatty beach, booted around a football with children from a nearby slum and wrestled for the cameras with a statue of a bull outside the Bombay Stock Exchange.
The visit, designed to drum up new business from the subcontinent for London, might have been a triumph for his personal brand overseas.
In terms of trade, however, it delivered rather meagre results.
Britain’s commercial ties with India have been a perennial disappointment in recent years, rarely living up to the promise offered by the country’s 1.4bn people and its fast-growing consumer economy – which recently outstripped Britain’s as the world’s fifth largest.
India may be poised to exceed China as the world’s most populous country by 2026, but despite historic ties and frequent flashy trade missions by a procession of British politicians, it doesn’t even make a list of the top 15 importers of UK goods and services.
At £8bn per year, Britain’s exports to India are not insignificant but remain dwarfed by other partners like Germany at £33bn or the US at £53bn – a testament partly to India’s knee jerk protectionism of key industries and to British heel-dragging over visas.
This month, Johnson is due to be back in India for his first major international visit since Brexit – a trip crafted to bolster ties and sign an ambitious new trade pact.
What are the chances he will be more successful this time around?
On one level, Johnson enjoys some unique advantages.
Rising tensions between Delhi and Beijing, including brutal border skirmishes in the Himalayas, are fuelling demands for India to forge stronger alliances with Western nations, including the UK, whose own ties with China have also cooled dramatically.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s close relationship with Priti Patel – a friend of prime minister Narendra Modi whose family hails from his home state of Gujarat – could prove to be a secret weapon in a drive to shore up ties with a more enthusiastic India.
Patel’s unabashed support for Modi, despite his Hindu nationalism and reputation for being anti-Muslim, could help unlock lingering problems that have bedevilled trade ties in the past: namely India’s protectionist instincts to slap tariffs on imports and lingering postcolonial suspicions of UK intentions.
Crucially, Johnson has also proved much more flexible than Theresa May over student visas for Indians – a critical issue for Delhi which had scuppered an earlier visit by his hawkish predecessor.
Some of those involved have described that trip as a diplomatic “car crash”.
It’s hard to deny that Britain will struggle to thaw its long-term ties with India if it fails to nurture the soft power that flows from allowing young Indians to study and work here, building ties and friendships which can last a lifetime.
The truth is that where once Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE were seen as the gold standard for bright Indian students to complete their higher education before entering the world of work, these days they increasingly look to universities in the US, Canada and Australia as more compelling and friendly destinations.
That needs to change. Fortunately, Johnson recognises the importance of this issue.
In 2019, he approved a new regime which restored a post-study work visa for international students to two years. That decision triggered a 300pc increase in tier 4 visa applications from India within two quarters to 25,519.
Previously, of the 750,000 Indian students studying overseas in 2018, fewer than 20,000 had been in the UK – two-thirds the number in New Zealand.
Either way, despite the new mood of optimism – best exemplified by the collaboration between Britain’s AstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India over production of the Oxford Covid vaccine – there is no disguising the fact that Johnson faces big challenges converting what has been billed as a “10-year roadmap” to closer ties with India into real UK jobs and investment.
Despite some high-profile bilateral success stories such as JCB and Tata’s acquisition of JLR, it’s no secret that India still has a reputation as a tricky place for Western firms to do business.
For years, Narendra Modi has made bold promises to slash red tape and ease the bureaucratic burden for foreign investors.
In some Indian states, such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, those promises have been backed by meaningful improvements in the business climate for foreign firms. In others, however, the environment remains challenging.
Many Western companies remain hesitant to invest while the well-publicised tax troubles faced by Vodafone, Cairn Energy and other big UK companies serve as a warning of the potential pitfalls.
For Johnson, Delhi in late April will be insufferably hot – far too sweaty for the kind of vigorous athletic performances he pursued during his visit in 2012.
That may mean a stronger focus on the content of his discussions and what he can actually deliver.
It may not be as easy to pull off as a game of cricket on Chowpatty beach.