Saturday, Jul 13, 2024 | Last Update : 07:05 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  12 Jun 2024  Bhopinder Singh | If Labour wins in UK, as expected, Starmer govt may be good for India

Bhopinder Singh | If Labour wins in UK, as expected, Starmer govt may be good for India

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Jun 13, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jun 13, 2024, 12:00 am IST

With UK's election near, Labour's Keir Starmer is set to replace Rishi Sunak. This shift could reshape UK-India relations

With the British election looming, Labour's Keir Starmer is poised to replace Rishi Sunak, raising questions about the impact on India's relationship with the UK. (Image: AFP)
 With the British election looming, Labour's Keir Starmer is poised to replace Rishi Sunak, raising questions about the impact on India's relationship with the UK. (Image: AFP)

The general election in Britain is due to be held just three weeks from now, on July 4. The Conservative Party had won a majority in the House of Commons in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019, albeit with different Prime Ministers -- starting with David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss to the incumbent, Rishi Sunak. However, this is poised for a change, given the seemingly irreversible lead of the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer over the Rishi Sunak-led Conservatives. Almost all pollsters validate the writing on the wall. It is time to bid farewell to the Tories and await the pragmatist, reformist and constantly evolving Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as the next PM of Great Britain.

Why should this concern India? Because Britons of Indian origin constitute the UK’s largest ethnic minority, at about 2.5 per cent of the population, or two million. The fact that Rishi Sunak too is of Indian origin and has often worn his religio-cultural identity on his brown sleeves, the subliminal aftereffects can be imagined in the erstwhile empire where it was once imperiously claimed that “the sun never set”. Beyond the patent political correctness that defines most Britons, to assume that there would be no subliminal racist concerns with a PM named “Rishi” (sage in Sanskrit), that too within the ranks of the Tories, is to live under a rock! As could be normally expected, would attempts by Rishi Sunak’s successor, Keir Starmer, to “un-do” Rishi and his legacy, lead to changed equations which are fundamentally detrimental to India? The short answer is “no”.

For starters, Labour has been the “natural” party of choice for most Britons of Indian origin, given the support afforded towards India’s Independence, as opposed to the Conservatives. Yet, it is equally true that the Conservatives had swung a significant voter base towards itself during the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour era (2015-2020), which was marked by Mr Corbyn’s hard-left stances that militated against Indian positions, especially on Kashmir. A 2019 Labour motion noted that Kashmir was a “disputed territory” and that “the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination in accordance with UN resolutions”. Many Britons of Indian origin were horrified with the obviously “anti-India” stance, always predicated on the hyphenated corollary to be viewed as “pro-Pakistan”. Second, the unprecedented possibility of an Indian-origin incumbent at 10 Downing Street (Rishi Sunak) accelerated the mass exodus of many desis towards Tory ranks.

But the ambiguous and relatively un-decoded Keir Starmer is outrightly anti-Jeremy Corbyn, as are his policies. Sir Keir Starmer has completely enervated the hardline Labour-Left and steered the Labour anchorage to its revised centrist moorings. About four years ago, he retracted sharply from Mr Corbyn’s position on Kashmir by brazenly counter-poising: “Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for India’s Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully. Labour is an internationalist party and stands for the defence of human rights everywhere.” The telling usage and deep import of insisting on “bilateral issue” (read, pro-India position), whilst nuancing the same with perfunctory Labour verbiage of “internationalist” and “human rights”, was a marked course correction. Keir Starmer did so, calculating the possible repercussions on the extreme-left section of his Labour party and even on the still-sizeable vote bank of Britons of Pakistani origin. The lawyer in him punted to be clearly “pro-India”.

Since then, Sir Keir has solidified his “pro-India” spiel and last year spoke at the India Global Forum, acknowledging: “This is a changed Labour Party… the opportunity is there for this to be an Indian century … The challenge, as I see it now, is for Britan to step out of the shadows in its mind, to cast aside the entitlement of history and deepen our relationship with the real India, the modern India, the future India.” Tellingly, Keir Starmer had suspended Mr Corbyn for his anti-Semitism (another strong retraction in Labour stand) and today Mr Corbyn is standing as an Independent!

Clearly, the PM-in waiting is seeing the practical picture as opposed to that of a puritanical ideologue when he acknowledges the “win-win” possibilities with the growing Indian economy that just dislodged the UK from the Global Top 5. India, as the second largest source of foreign direct investment into the UK, will be critical to Keir Starmer’s plans to fix the UK’s pressing economic woes.

Also, unlike Rishi, who would be extra-cautious to avoid showing any overt India bias (beyond cultural issues) due to his inherent Indianness, Keir Starmer could freely demonstrate positive India biases, as they would make eminent sense, economically, and even from partisan lens.

Whereas, like all right-wing politicians, Rishi is harping to the past by desperately proposing long-abandoned schemes like National Service to drum up a “renewed sense of pride”. This on top of the Brexit fiasco (which Keir Starmer hopes to moderate and normalise with EU) points to the agenda-less spiel of the Tories, which promises even more conservatism, exclusivism and revisionism. In contrast, Sir Keir Starmer is relatively fresh (he became an MP in 2015), flexible and unstrapped to the dogmas of the past. His politics are completely practical, relentlessly ends-focused, and not caught up in identities, “camps” or ideologies (some even call it transactional and unrooted), and that may just be the reason why New Delhi ought to welcome Sir Keir Starmer as the next PM of Britain, once the vacuously nativist fuss around Rishi Sunak is over.

Tags: keir starmer, rishi sunak, british politics, uk election 2024