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LONDON — Rishi Sunak might struggle to set pulses racing at home. But Downing Street hopes for a different story when the U.K. prime minister visits India next month.
His ascent has already been hailed by the country’s press. “Indian son rises over the empire” read a headline by major broadcaster NDTV as Sunak entered Downing Street last year. The Times of India ran a piece on the shift “from age of empire to Rishi Raj.”
As Sunak prepares to travel to India for the first time since he took office, U.K. officials believe the prime minister — born in Southampton to parents of Indian descent and with strong family ties there — will receive a warm welcome.
“There’s going to be enormous excitement about Rishi,” a senior member of the U.K. government who has already travelled to India for G20 meetings this year said.
“Every single Indian person I spoke to asked about Rishi — they regard it as a sort of reverse takeover, having been the subject of colonial rule by Britain. Now someone of Indian origin is running Britain … He will get completely mobbed.”
With a long-stalled U.K.-India trade deal still in the works, he may need a hefty dose of goodwill.
Trade hopes rising
Sunak is due to attend the G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi on September 9 and 10. But No. 10 Downing Street is looking at a potentially extended visit which could see Sunak visit other parts of the country before or after the summit.
The trip is being billed as an opportunity to build on the U.K.’s post-Brexit foreign policy shift to the Indo-Pacific and strengthen defense ties with India.
But the biggest prize could be a post-Brexit trade deal — talks on which have been stalled repeatedly by disagreements over migration and visas — as Sunak’s planned trip focuses minds. A twelfth round of negotiations kicks off on Monday in New Delhi.
India is keen “to finalise the deal at the earliest,” Commerce Secretary Sunil Barthwal told reporters last Friday. He said an agreement could be done “much before” the end of 2023, as negotiations on nearly all the contentious issues were complete.
An Indian official said it was now down to Sunak and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi “to decide whether they can do a deal.”
U.K. Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is expected to fly to Jaipur for the G20 trade ministers meeting on August 24 and 25. There, she will work with India’s trade chief Piyush Goyal to see whether a deal can be done in time for the leaders’ summit.
“There seems to be a bit of a healthy competition between the European Union and Britain as to who does this first,” Harsh V. Pant, vice-president for foreign policy at the Delhi-based Observer Foundation said of a trade deal with India. “If it happens, it is going to be seen as a big achievement.”
Both sides are also talking up the prospect of closer defense ties. Tim Barrow, the U.K. national security adviser and G20 sherpa, sat in on a U.K.-India military cooperation workshop organized by two influential think tanks last week.
“There is growing conversation between the ministries of defense in both countries,” said Sanjaya Baru, a commentator and former government adviser in Delhi.
U.K. government figures are hopeful Sunak can use his background and continued links to the country as a diplomatic weapon to further Britain’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Sunak swore his oath as an MP on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, and lit Diwali lamps in Downing Street last year.
He married Akshata Murthy in her home city of Bengaluru, one of the few Indian cities that retains English street names and statues of British imperial rulers, including Queen Victoria. Murthy’s parents, the Infosys software billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy and his wife Sudha, are prominent public figures. Sunak has even been referred to as “the son-in-law of Bengaluru,” with much made of his ties to the Infosys co-founder.
Analysts in India believe Sunak’s visit in September will be a major occasion — especially if he extends his trip beyond Delhi. “The media will go to town on it,” Baru said. “10 Downing Street won’t have to put in too much effort.”
Shelly Walia, executive editor of Indian news website the Quint, said success stories like Sunak’s were “a matter of pride” for audiences. “There’s also the ‘relatability factor’ given that in Mr. Sunak’s case, apart from his Hindu religion, his in-laws are as Indian as it gets (let me say this despite their billionaire status).”
Big ambitions, big problems
Britain is also expecting India’s first G20 summit to make a big splash.
“They are looking to put on a really good show … It will be the biggest G20 summit there has ever been in terms of scale and brashness,” said a former U.K. government official who was granted anonymity to speak about the preparations. “They’ve had this extraordinary year of meetings all over India — they are really showcasing the country, and showing people living in those cities that India is a big global player.”
India is holding a general election in the spring of 2024, and Modi wants to demonstrate his international clout to a domestic audience. But it’s unlikely to be plain sailing for the Indian prime minister — and world leaders including Sunak can expect pressure to address Modi’s contentious human rights record.
More broadly, observers are pessimistic about how much the summit can actually achieve. It will be held at a time of high global tension, with relations between Western powers and Russia and China at a low point. G20 talks on energy and climate change have also floundered.
“The challenge for India here is delivery. The G20 is in total disarray, partly because of the war in Ukraine, partly because of broader geopolitical tensions,” said Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House. “There are big problems but there’s not much trust between the big powers.”
“India’s main priority is to see that the divisions are not as as stark as they seem to be at the moment, between the West and Russia and China in particular so that at least there is a communique,” said Pant. “It looks very difficult … and in that certainly India would like some help from friendly countries such as Britain.”