British High Commissioner to India Dominic Asquith assures Brexit will not impact India-UK ties, cites the diverse British Parliament as proof of the country’s integration efforts, denies tightening up on visas to Indians, calls GST and demonetisation “bold” decisions, and says Vijay Mallya’s case will be dealt with seriously
Why Dominic Asquith? As India and the UK mark 70 years of cultural and economic ties between the two countries with a year-long programme, British High Commissioner to India Dominic Asquith is one of the key personnel engaged in efforts to strengthen the relationship. Given the shadow of Brexit on economic ties, the career diplomat — who has also served as the British Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt and Libya — is trying to ensure that the trade momentum between the two nations is not affected
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: After the recent UK elections, is there a change of strategy on Brexit? Is there a new realism on the subject?
The negotiations have only just started, and it is too early to tell. Our objective out of Brexit is very clear and nothing has changed as a result of the elections. We want an outcome which benefits both sides — the EU and Britain. The Prime Minister’s and the British government’s view towards Brexit is that at the end of the process, there should be a deep and special relationship between the UK and European Union. There will be a focus, of course, on ensuring that the trade flows between the UK and the EU remain as strong as they possibly can — as strong as they are at the moment. So, in that sense, nothing has changed.
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: So, do we have to wait for the conclusion of Brexit for further deepening of bilateral ties between India and the UK?
We are trying to strengthen the bilateral relationship all the time — day in, day out. If you look back, I have been here for 15 months, and if we look back at that period… we have had a continuous run of very senior political visitors to India. In November, there was the visit by the British Prime Minister; her first bilateral visit outside the EU to any country. Why? Because of the importance of the relationship. In the first 10 days in April, we had our Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Finance Minister, here for the economic-financial dialogue. This was followed by the (visit of the) Secretary of State for Defence for the strategic defence dialogue. So the intention is to push forward on the bilateral relationship with India. It is making progress irrespective of the negotiations on Brexit. I have absolutely no doubt that this is what we would be doing for the rest of my time here.
KAVITHA IYER: There have been multiple terror attacks in Britain and the rest of Europe recently. Is there any new strategy to deal with the rising terrorism in the region? Also, has there been any progress in deradicalising extremist groups or extremist individuals within the country?
The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, set three key priorities for the government. One was Brexit, one was making sure that nobody was left behind in British society, that it was a fair society. The third was to deal with terrorism. So, it’s right up there in our priorities. How you deal with it… It (the solution) would always have to adapt to the circumstances that we find ourselves in. I am sure you will see references in the media about how to deal with it. A lot of the activity will be focused on precisely the problem you identified.
Country-wide, extremism, particularly one that is online, is inevitably a sensitive area to deal with. We will have to take that into account, but there has to be a global response. I think it would have been very much on the minds of people who met in Hamburg for the G20 Summit. It was already very much an issue at the G7 in Italy. So it’s there, front and centre of people’s attention. It means us working within EU and with India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in November 2015 and has built an extraordinarily good relationship on terrorism and the focus is on three different areas — policy, exchange of intelligence and capability of security forces to be able to respond. Those are three key bits on which we will go on working very closely with the Indian government and its agencies.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: The British government’s Prevent strategy aims to safeguard vulnerable individuals who are at the risk of radicalisation and relies on intelligence from community leaders. A lot of countries such as India see the strategy as a template for deradicalisation policies. But there is a lot of resistance to it from Muslim communities in the UK, who feel that instead of preventing radicalisation, the strategy is making Muslims more vulnerable.
Look at the way the British society has reacted to the terrorist attacks over the past three months. Personally, I found it extraordinarily uplifting the way the communities decided to work together to deal with the consequences, and not fall into the trap that the extremists, I think, want to lead us into, which is to open up the differences between us. The response, particularly to the Manchester attack, the planned attack on the Elton John concert and finally on the London bridge and Borough Market, produced an extraordinary set of reactions in the British community, and that is a testament to something which has been going back much longer.
I have spent 40 years working in West Asia. Between 2000 and 2013, when I left the foreign office, I was very conscious about how Muslims, in particular in the bit of the world I was looking at, would point to the communities in Britain. They would say that the Muslim community in Britain feels more integrated, more comfortable in society, than they did in any other country, certainly in other European countries. So, good is never good enough. We always want to do better. But, I think, you need to look at the way we try to integrate communities into society, and to make a contemporary society that tries to get over accentuating differences.
Interestingly, if you look at our Parliament after this last election, it is the most diverse Parliament we have ever had. A third of the Parliament is women. One in 12 is from a Black or ethnic minority background. I think the proof of integration is there.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: The reforms that the Modi government has undertaken in the past three years, both economic as well as political, how do you see that impacting UK-India ties? Do you see a major change?
Both sides should be looking at what the relevance is of the UK to India and India to the UK. In two areas Britain has something very important to bring to the table — technology and capital. For the infrastructure plans and ambitions that the Indian government has, which are far-reaching, you have to raise funding in the foreign capital market. That is preeminently something that the city of London provides. We have demonstrated that over the past couple of years; 85 per cent of all the Masala bonds are issued in London (Masala bonds are bonds issued outside India but denominated in Indian Rupees, rather than the local currency).
Also, it is not just about money, it is also about Foreign Direct Investment. The UK is the largest G20 FDI Investor. More importantly, it is the largest job creator of all the other partners.
Now, it is not one-way, it is a two-way thing. If you look at the reverse, India invests more in the UK than the entire EU. In terms of job creation, India, as an FDI partner, is the second-largest job creator in the UK. So it is important for me that people remind themselves of the bedrock of the relationship, which is relevance in particular areas of investment capital.
Technology, again, is incredibly important and I can give you half a dozen important examples of technology collaboration. There is Dynamatic in Bangalore, which is making in India key bits of the wings of the A330, one of the most important airplanes. We also have in Bangalore the Indian Institute of Science, which is working with Oxford University in developing high-quality prosthetics.
We will have Dyson machines opening up here, making available to retailers some of their technology. GSK (Glaxo Smith Kline), which are establishing down south, have the most advanced manufacturing facility of generic pharmaceuticals anywhere in the world. We have 99 of the best trainer aircraft powered by Rolls Royce engines made by DRDO. These are two companies in India that have been making in India long before it became a government campaign, and are transferring technology in the process.
The 50 pound note, the highest denomination note in the UK, is not made of paper but from cotton, which comes from here. The Indian cotton industry is creeping back into Britain. So there is a whole host of things we are doing on the technology side.
We look at what is relevant to both of us and things we both can collaborate on. It is not just government to government… The phrase I would like to use is ‘Living Bridge’, which was used by PM Modi when Mrs May was here. It is the transition backwards and forwards — the traffic of people, ideas, technology between institutions and companies.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: Has the present social climate in India affected the outlook of British companies? Is it a cause of concern?
Are you seeing any effect from any foreign company or foreign country about that? I think companies would do business looking at their relevance to each other. I am not going to get into a discussion about the merits of the social policies of the Indian government. British companies have had a long association with India and are focused on doing business. They want to do business with India and we want India to do business with us.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: What about the British government, is it concerned?
We have a very good relationship with the Indian government and that is what we are focusing on. We are trying to ensure that people on both sides benefit from that.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: The British newspapers had a mixed response to the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in India. What were the areas of concern in the UK with respect to trade and commerce?
I think exactly the same concerns were expressed quite eloquently in your newspapers as well. Everybody recognised that demonetisation was a hugely bold decision and any bold decision gets people inevitably uneasy, as they are not quite sure what the consequences are. I think all the commentators in the UK probably read their Indian counterparts and tended to talk about the same concerns. Were they right? Well, we will see. At the moment, as they say, the jury is out. But it was unquestionably a bold decision, just as the Goods and Services Tax. It is again a bold decision. In all these things the implementation and the adaptation to the new circumstances are going to be key. Both these things take a bit of time.
MAYURA JANWALKAR: What is your take on the politics over the cow in India?
It is internal to India. I don’t think outsiders need to comment on it. There is a debate, and I follow it very closely in your media.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) in the UK, the Bajrang Dal in India, the Houthi rebels in Yemen… why is this happening across the globe?
I think it happens at all times. You look at the history books of the 1920s Britain, and read what people were writing then. They thought the world’s end was unravelling. If you look at the 2010-2011 period, in the part of the world I know well, the revolutions then… The 1990-1991 period after the Berlin Wall came down, the whole of Europe was changing. So, all through history you will find periods where there is a high level of uncertainty about what is going on. I am not sure I feel there is a peculiarity today. I think it is something you will see all through history, in different times, in different societies, at different points. There is something which is prevalent, but not necessarily new.
I think it is something deep, something to do with with the way voters want to be represented. It is also about something that always changes, which is the relationship between the voter and the elected. If you look at the British Parliament, the role of an MP as conceived 40 years ago is completely different from what it is now.
DEVENDRA PANDEY: Till a few years ago, many Indian cricketers played club cricket in England. But this year, a lot of Indian players were denied visas because they did not have professional documents. Was it because of Brexit or was it a visa issue?
I don’t know for sure. My instinct is that it has nothing to do with Brexit. It has nothing to do with tightening up on visas because we aren’t. We have issued visas to more people in the past year than ever before. It is 6 per cent higher I think. The numbers continue to go up on that.
We get a lot of criticism about visas, particularly on the business side. What people keep saying to us is that ‘you want our money but you don’t want us’. The visa figures is a disproof of that. Two-third of all the business visas we issue in the world go to Indians. Then you would think, how many do the Chinese get? Well, less than a third. Student visas have gone up this year by 9 per cent. So we had this downturn and now we are going back up. The success rate of the applicants is 90 per cent. Ninety-nine per cent of these applicants have got their visas within the 15-working day limit that we have set.
We do it (issuing visas) quickly, we do it efficiently and there are more of them in all categories. So, if there is a problem, I suspect it is a problem with the documents that are presented. If they don’t provide papers, they don’t get a visa. This is the same for everybody.
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: In an indirect reference to the ongoing extradition case against business tycoon Vijay Mallya, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Y K Sinha, said that Britain has become a ‘haven’ for fugitives. Is that a concern?
I am limited in talking about things where there is a judicial process. Extradition is a judicial process, which means it is handled by the judiciary and it is not a political or government issue. The case of Vijay Mallya is in that process. I can assure you that every single case of extradition is dealt with the utmost seriousness and in exactly the same way. To my knowledge, all these people came to the UK legally.
There is a question, I think, of perception. I’m not quite sure why that perception should be different from reality. In terms of dealing with judicial issues, our judiciary will deal with them. They are not political issues. There is sometimes a confusion, that anything that happens out of an institution in the UK, they somehow are government institutions. Not always.
RASHMI RAJPUT: There were reports about documents being delayed by the CBI in Mallya’s case. Has there been any issue that the High Commission has faced in terms of the paperwork?
It is an extradition process. It is really important that I do not comment on any point of that process for fear of not prejudicing the outcome. But I can assure you that we will deal with it with the utmost seriousness.