Modi rejuvenated as Europe clamors for greater India ties
In the six decades since India had its first ambassador accredited to the European Economic Community, perceptions of the world’s most populous democracy have been transformed across much of the bloc.
Back then, India was aligned with the-then Soviet Union and had a protectionist economy moving away from the colonial era. The European Economic Community (the precursor to today’s EU), consisting of six Western European countries, therefore had a remote relationship with the emerging market giant.
Fast forward to 2023, however, and the contrast is striking: India is this year’s G20 chair, with a $3 trillion economy. It is also increasingly aligned with the West, despite disagreements over Ukraine.
The transformation of Western attitudes toward India has also been replicated in the warmth of relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When Modi first came to office, human rights controversies surrounding his political past dogged his reputation. These included the treatment of Sikh and Christian minority groups by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party he heads. Modi himself was once subject to US and UK travel bans over the 2002 communal violence that took place during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat state, during which about 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims.
His national government has also been accused of stifling independent media, with India falling 21 places to 161st out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index since he took office. For instance, the Indian offices of the BBC were raided by the Indian tax department in February, weeks after the UK broadcaster was hit with a barrage of government criticism for airing a documentary questioning Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots.
Modi is also currently walking a diplomatic tightrope between India’s historical ally Russia and the West over Ukraine. He has declined to criticize last year’s invasion by Moscow, while India is also snapping up the discounted Russian oil that was previously consumed by European nations.
Moreover, Russia continues to be India’s largest arms supplier, even though its share has dropped to about 50 percent from 70 percent due to New Delhi’s decision to diversify its portfolio and boost domestic defense manufacturing. This could leave India vulnerable to US sanctions from legislation such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which prohibits any country from signing defense deals with Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Yet, despite it all, the Indian prime minister is now widely feted not just in Europe, but the wider West too. Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese, for instance, even likened him to rock musician Bruce Springsteen at a rousing Sydney reception earlier this year.
In Europe, France will on Friday become the latest EU nation to toast Modi as he will be the guest of honor at the annual Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. The prime minister will be joined by Indian troops in the military parade, marking what President Emmanuel Macron has called “a new phase in the strategic partnership between France and India.”
Modi is walking a diplomatic tightrope between India’s historical ally Russia and the West over Ukraine
The incredible shift in sentiment in Europe and the wider West toward India, which has deepened since the COVID-19 pandemic, comes as New Delhi is increasingly seen as a countervailing military force to China as tensions have grown with Beijing. The huge emerging market is also seen as a key growth driver.
There are, however, other key reasons why Europe and India have warming ties. The 27 EU nations (taken as a whole) and India are the world’s two largest democracies, while continental Europe is India’s largest single trade and investment partner; hence a bilateral trade deal is a key potential prize for both parties. There are also converging interests around shared defense mechanisms, including for maritime security in the Indian Ocean.
The shift in sentiment toward India is reflected right across Europe, not just the EU. For instance, the European Free Trade Association countries of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are also making moves toward New Delhi. On Monday and Tuesday, Indian Trade Minister Piyush Goyal met his counterparts from these four nations to progress talks on a trade and economic partnership agreement. The focus of these discussions was addressing trade barriers, promoting investments and fostering greater cooperation in areas such as technology, innovation and intellectual property rights.
The post-Brexit UK is also warming its ties with India. Of course, London and New Delhi have long had a unique relationship dating back to the days of the British Empire. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants British firms to gain stronger access to the Indian market of about 1.3 billion consumers through a new UK-India trade deal.
However, despite all the potential gains from a trade deal, there are challenges too. One key issue India is pressing for in this agreement is UK immigration reform to enable more Indian business people and students to travel to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While there have been some steps forward on this agenda in recent years, there still has not been a decisive overall breakthrough.
Despite the remaining differences between India and the UK on the details of a new post-Brexit trade deal, what is most striking is how much economics has come to dominate bilateral relations in recent times. Meanwhile, traditional irritants such as human rights have been de-emphasized.
For as long as Sunak and his European counterparts, including Macron, continue to prioritize ties with India, such controversies will largely be swept under the carpet. The appetite for greater economic and security collaboration — as Europe seeks to offset cooling relations with Beijing with warmer ties with New Delhi — is trumping all else.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.