Shairee Malhotra, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, said that under Starmer’s leadership, the Labour Party had reformed itself from a more left-wing to a rather centrist party.

“This pragmatic direction bodes well for India-UK ties, which are already on an upswing, under a Labour government. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, who had a habit of wrangling New Delhi on the Kashmir issue, Starmer has emphasised that he would prioritise ties with India and even gone so far as to admit mistakes that Labour previously made in its India policy,” Malhotra said.

Keir Starmer visiting the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple on June 28. Photo: AP
In October 2020, Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party for refusing to accept the results of a report on antisemitism within the party. He was later reinstated as a Labour member but chose to be an independent candidate and has retained his Islington seat with 24,120 votes.

After Corbyn’s exit, Labour adopted the UK’s official position that Indian-administered Kashmir was a bilateral issue.

During the election campaign, Starmer pledged a “new strategic partnership” with India to mend relations.

In meetings with the Indian diaspora and public addresses, he affirmed that Kashmir was an internal issue to be resolved by India and Pakistan. Starmer’s manifesto includes trade agreements and cooperation in technology, security, education and environmental issues with India.

On Friday, the Labour Party won a historic victory in the UK general election with 412 seats in the 650-member Parliament, ending 14 years of Conservative rule.

Indian Anxiety reignited?

New Delhi has been cautious of the Labour Party’s lean towards Pakistan and its stance on the Kashmir dispute, largely due to the significant presence of the Pakistani diaspora in the UK, who traditionally vote Labour.

Some Labour members of parliament, such as Tanmanjit Singh Dhesi and Preet Kaur Gill, have also shown support for the separatist Khalistan Sikh movement in the UK.

C. Raja Mohan, a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, however, said Labour’s return to power might rekindle India’s “anxiety” over bilateral ties due to troubled relations in the late 1990s.

“In 1997, during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to India, British foreign secretary Robin Cook offered to mediate on Kashmir while on a stopover in Pakistan. Then Indian PM Inder Kumar Gujral called Britain a ‘third-rate power’,” noted Mohan.

Despite former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts while in office, disputes over Pakistan and Kashmir had strained relations during Labour’s tenure, he added.

Mohan conceded that Starmer has extinguished the anti-India sentiments within the Labour Party that had been ignited by Jeremy Corbyn.

01:48

Indian temple uses lifelike robotic elephant in rituals to avoid cruelty to live animals

Indian temple uses lifelike robotic elephant in rituals to avoid cruelty to live animals

“Labour is courting the Hindu vote with Starmer promising to protect British-Hindu interests. However, they can’t ignore the 1.2 million Pakistani diaspora. Moreover, UK-based Khalistani groups will keep lobbying against India,” he said.

Experts believe that the relationship between the Modi government and the Starmer government will depend on Labour’s approach to India’s security concerns.

“New Delhi has a dual task in hand: pressuring to curb anti-India activity in the UK and engaging with the ‘deep state’ to manage issues from the growing South Asian diaspora.

“The other task is to capitalise on positive potential while reducing the significance of negative factors, especially given India’s current exports to Britain are nearly $30 billion,” Mohan said.

Malhotra from ORF said a majority-led Labour government might also find it easier to pass through the India-UK Free Trade Agreement, negotiations on which began in 2022 under a Tory government.

“The fact that Labour’s politics does not have anti-immigration rhetoric at its core may make it more conducive to address some of India’s demands, such as concessions on issues of mobility and migration for its professionals and students,” she said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi phoned Keir Starmer on Saturday to extend his congratulations and invite him to visit India. According to a readout from the external affairs ministry, the two leaders agreed to work towards the early conclusion of a mutually beneficial India-UK Free Trade Agreement.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (L) meets India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Buckingham Palace in 2015. Photo: AFP

A statement from the UK Prime Minister’s Office quoted Starmer saying that he “stood ready to conclude a deal that worked for both sides”.

Walter Ladwig, a senior international-relations lecturer at King’s College London, told This Week in Asia that India and the UK would continue to engage with each other due to their core national interests in deepening their relationship, regardless of which parties are in power.

Ladwig said that, in the period leading up to the election, the shadow cabinet at the time clearly indicated that it valued a strategic partnership with India.

“Despite the fact that the ‘overseas friends of the BJP’ had been openly encouraging British Indian voters to back the Conservatives in recent elections, Labour leadership has directly engaged with Dr Jaishankar [India’s foreign minister] to build a rapport,” Ladwig said.

Ladwig said that the senior leaders of the Labour Party recognised what civil servants in the British government already understood: the UK should not be interjecting itself into the Kashmir issue.

Strategic positioning

“There are certain Labour constituencies – particularly in the vicinity of Bradford – with a high population of people whose families originated from Mirpur in Pakistani Kashmir.

“These politicians, alongside some of the ‘unreconstructed’ Labour MPs, will be likely to raise Kashmir as an issue and press the government to act,” Ladwig said, adding that they will have a greater degree of voice than they did under Tory rule although those views do not reflect that of the cabinet.

Dr Sheetal Sharma, a professor at the Centre for European Studies at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that while the Labour Party’s “anti-India stand” on Kashmir and Hinduphobia are concerns, they are also trying to improve their image.

03:30

Kashmir villagers join government-backed civil militia to fight armed rebels

Kashmir villagers join government-backed civil militia to fight armed rebels

“At present, nobody can afford not to have good relations with India. India’s rising geopolitical and economic status means it is in the interest of every small and big country to be in a good relationship with India,” Sheetal said.

Sheetal said that, unlike China, India has credibility in Western countries and has maintained a cordial relationship with major powers like the US and European nations.

“India is now more inclined towards the West while balancing its relationship with Russia due to China. With the UK, it has a long pending FTA deal and migration issue that it hopes to resolve with the new government,” She said.

The Kashmir conflict, originating from the 1947 partition of India, has led to multiple wars between India and Pakistan, both of which claim the region. In August 2019, India revoked Article 370, ending Kashmir’s special autonomy, causing unrest and a security crackdown .

This move led to calls from some, including members of the Labour Party, for international intervention to address the escalating violence and human rights concerns.

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