Presenting my credentials to President Ram Nath Kovind this week, I said I was happy to return to a country I lived in 35 years ago. I have many happy memories from that time: wandering the ghats in Varanasi; an adventurous bus journey from Delhi to Srinagar; playing cricket with my pupils in Indore. Coming to bat for the UK in India more officially this time, I cannot imagine a better time to be here. As both India and the UK emerge from Covid-19 to face a new world, we should do so together, forging a deeper, more forward looking partnership, which I hope our prime ministers will agree later this year.
The India of today is both very different and very similar to that I knew in 1986. I must be mindful of Satyajit Ray’s caution against ‘the love of the false-exotic’. But India continues to amaze. What many said would be its biggest challenge, India has turned to its advantage – vaccinating over 3 million people in a fortnight. Our shared fight against Covid-19 is epitomised by the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured by the Serum Institute, to vaccinate the people of India, the UK and the world.
In addition to our excellent cooperation on health, my other top priorities for our new partnership are security and defence, trade and investment, and climate change.
The tragedy in Uttarakhand was a reminder of the fragility of our planet. In under 10 months, the UK will host the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, convening world leaders to turn promises into action. As a global giant, and world leader in affordable renewables and clean energy, India’s role will be decisive. That’s why COP26 president Alok Sharma will arrive in Delhi on Monday, in one of his first overseas visits in the role, to work with India to achieve an ambitious, balanced outcome in Glasgow.
As we start to recover from Covid-19, we must create jobs. Last week, trade secretary Liz Truss visited India to drive forward, with commerce minister Piyush Goyal, a closer trading relationship. I was struck by the energy and desire of the public and private sectors alike to deliver real, tangible progress.
In a more complex world, India’s return to the UN Security Council couldn’t be timelier and PM Boris Johnson has invited PM Narendra Modi to this June’s G7 Summit. We must work together to manage our shared challenges. This year, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will embark upon the Navy’s most ambitious deployment for two decades, through the Indian Ocean. We’re also cooperating in air and at sea to co-develop technology that keeps pace with threats, whilst a new government-to-government agreement ensures we will not only ‘Make in India’ but ‘Create in India’ through the co-development of intellectual property.
Underpinning all this is our unique, human, connection. When the foreign secretary visited last year, he aptly remarked how our ‘living bridge’ of people, ideas and institutions often makes your news, our news. As a former history teacher, and the son and grandson of history teachers, I am conscious of the past and how its story is told in the present. The 75th year of Independence celebration provides a chance to recognise and respect the past whilst looking to the future.
It’s the consequence of our shared history that sitting today around the Cabinet table in Number 10 are Alok Sharma, Priti Patel as home secretary and Rishi Sunak as chancellor of the exchequer. Already more Indians work in the UK’s NHS than from anywhere else in the world, helping the UK fight Covid-19 from the frontlines just as they do in India. Last year, nearly 50% more student visas were granted to Indian nationals and the UK will open a new graduate route to facilitate the flow of talent and ideas between our two countries. Our human connection is deep.
2021 is a big year for the UK and India, both bilaterally and on the world stage. Two Cabinet ministers in two weeks, hot on the heels of the foreign secretary, and hopefully a visit soon from our PM show the relationship has renewed energy. We have our history, we have the two imposters of triumph and disaster in our cricket, and we have a future which can benefit us both.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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