With just two weeks to go until Britain is scheduled to exit the European Union, Boris Johnson and his ministers are understandably focused on the last-minute dash to formulate a workable Brexit deal with the EU. Once this moment has passed, however, either Johnson or whoever replaces him as PM will come under intense pressure to deliver the trade deals Brexit side supporters have so talked up since 2016.
One such envisaged deal is with India. Seven decades after securing independence from Britain’s colonial empire, New Delhi has the world’s seventh-largest economy and one of its fastest growth rates. The prospect of deeper trade ties with Asia’s third-largest economy has been a major feature of the pitch for a “Global Britain” that extends the UK’s reach beyond the continent, and Johnson himself made a big thing of expanding economic ties with India while campaigning to become PM.
Unfortunately, any plans to kickstart trade agreements with India will run into problems, and not just over immigration and visa issues. India is on the verge of a serious economic downturn, hit by job losses and decreasing levels of foreign investment. With growth slowing down, Indian PM Narendra Modi has fallen back on his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism to galvanise public support, a gambit that has most recently resulted in his government’s controversial move to strip automony from Kashmir.
Bad time for a UK-India trade deal
Whereas only a few years ago India was held up as one of the world’s fastest growing economies and an enticing prospect for global trade and investment, Moody’s new projection of a 5.8% growth rate represents a danger to Narendra Modi’s promise of a $5 trillion economy. Recently released figures show India’s GDP growth falling for the fifth successive quarter, to a six-year low of 5.2%.
India’s economic woes are reflected in patterns of foreign investment. Around $45 billion has been invested in India from abroad over the last 6 years. The downturn in the country’s economic fortunes has seen a record $4.5 billion of shares sold by foreign investors since June this year. These economic problems are linked to Modi’s failure to carry through on economic reforms promised when he came to power in 2014, when a number of structural problems were seen as inhibiting external trade relationships.
India currently has over 1,000 business regulations and more than 3,000 filing requirements, as well as differing standards for social, environmental and human rights. These have been sticking points in the moribund trade deal negotiations between India and the EU, and Brexit advocates have not explained how they plan to overcome these hurdles.
Hostility to foreign companies
Structural issues are only part of the problem. Another key concern is the Indian government’s adversarial attitude towards foreign investors. Despite Modi’s promises to make India an attractive place to do business, his government has continued protectionist policies that throttle the country’s ability to attract outside capital.
One issue is retrospective taxation. Under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, several British and international firms were hit with sizeable, legally dubious tax bills by the Indian government. Modi came to power on a promise of ending retrospective tax bills being imposed on overseas companies, and yet British firms such as Vodafone and Cairn Energy still find themselves pursued through the courts for back-dated tax bills, despite the protections they should enjoy under the bilateral investment treaty between India and the UK.
Vodafone’s case involved its 2007 acquisition of a stake in cellular carrier Hutchinson Essar. While the deal did not take place in India, New Delhi determined Vodafone still owed $5 billion in taxes on the overseas transaction. After the Indian Supreme Court dismissed the claim in 2012, India’s previous government introduced a new law to tax transactions of this nature that retroactively applied to cases going back to 1962. Modi attacked this “tax terrorism” at the time, but his government has continued its dogged pursuit of Vodafone in the courts.
Cairn Energy has faced an equally arduous struggle with the Indian Ministry of Finance, which in 2014 blocked the British firm from selling its 10% stake in Cairn India and subsequently demanded $1.6 billion in taxes. Indian officials used the 2012 law to justify their actions, violating the bilateral investment treaty and breaking one of Modi’s own campaign promises in the process.
Immigration laws a further sticking point
This recent history should already give British businesses pause, but the most obvious obstacle in any trade negotiations between UK and India will be the issue of immigration. The Centre For European Reform has argued post-Brexit trade will be closely linked to opening up UK borders to workers from partner countries, but a UK Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report in June highlighted how Britain’s immigration restrictions on Indian workers, students and tourists has already impacted bilateral trade relations. The report noted how the UK has slipped from being India’s 2nd largest trade partner in 1999 to 17th in 2019, adding that skilled workers, students and tourists are deterred from coming to the UK by the complicated, expensive and unwelcoming British migration system.
It is unlikely the Modi government will agree to any UK-India trade deal that doesn’t guarantee a relaxing of immigration rules that will allow a free flow of people as well as goods and capital between the two countries. The question is whether the British government, which has veered ever more closely towards a Brexit-fuelled populism at odds with relaxed border controls, will be flexible enough to sign up to this.
Given these issues, are Britain’s hopes for a post-Brexit dividend in Indian trade dead on arrival? Unless Modi’s government starts living up to international standards and honouring his country’s investment agreements with British companies, “Global Britain” may not get much further with India than it has with the US.