What is on the agenda as UK’s Boris Johnson visits India?

The British PM visits India against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine as the West urges India to take a stronger stand against Russia.

Boris Johnson in India
Johnson gestures after tying a garland made of cotton threads on a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, during his visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat [Amit Dave/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to entice India towards the West and wean the country off its dependence on Russian oil and arms as the war in Ukraine rages on.

Johnson arrived in India on Thursday, beginning his two-day trip in Gujarat, the home state of his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

“As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together,” Johnson told reporters prior to his long-awaited trip to the South Asia nation.

Boris Johnson in India
Johnson scatters rose petals on the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad [Ben Stansall/Reuters]

Modi has expressed concern about the Ukraine war and urged an end to it. But New Delhi’s reluctance to condemn its Cold War ally Moscow on the global stage has led Western leaders to lobby India to change its stance.

India’s top oil firm, the Indian Oil Corporation, bought 3 million barrels of crude from Russia in March. Last week, US President Joe Biden asked Modi not to increase purchases of Russian oil.

New Delhi has made no firm commitments to Biden, and Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar highlighted Europe’s dependency on Russian oil.

“Probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon,” Jaishankar said at a news conference in Washington, DC, last week.

Russia also remains India’s key defence partner, with the Kremlin exporting arms worth $6.6bn to New Delhi between 2016 and 2020.

Johnson’s spokesperson stressed that the British leader had no plans to “lecture” Modi on the matter but would discuss strengthening security cooperation with India by offering alternative options for defence procurement and energy.

Vivek Mishra, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank (ORF) in New Delhi, says Ukraine will figure tangentially in Johnson’s talks with the Indian leaders.

“I don’t think the UK will try too hard to persuade India to align with the West in isolating any one country. I think India’s position on isolation is quite clear,” he told Al Jazeera.

Boris Johnson in India
Johnson spins khadi on a charkha (spinning wheel) during his visit to the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad [Ben Stansall/Reuters]

Michael Kugelman, senior fellow for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, shared a similar view.

“No one has succeeded in getting India to change its position on Russia and Johnson won’t either. New Delhi’s position is quite immutable,” he told Al Jazeera.

“What we can expect is for Johnson, like other like-minded Western leaders, to call for India to ease up on its trade with Russia. But the message will be delivered as a pitch, not an ultimatum.”

Anil Trigunayat, former Indian ambassador to Malta, Jordan and Libya, told Al Jazeera India might also use this meeting to understand UK’s stance on China and Pakistan – India’s two main rivals.

Bolstering trade and investment

Besides geopolitics, trade and investment announcements are a key priority for Johnson, as he tries to bolster post-Brexit Britain’s ties with India.

Beginning his visit from the enterprising city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Johnson’s office said in a statement that UK and Indian businesses will confirm more than a billion British pounds ($1.3bn) in new investments and export deals in areas from software engineering to health, creating almost 11,000 jobs across Britain.

Boris Johnson in India
The message written by Johnson in the Gandhi Ashram’s guest book, Ahmedabad [Amit Dave/Reuters]

Collaborations in the science and technology sector are also on the agenda, with the UK looking to confirm a Digital Health partnership through a joint investment fund for Indian deep-tech and AI start-ups, new AI scholarships for Indian students jointly funded by the UK government’s Chevening programme and India’s Adani Group, and a 6 million British point ($7.8m) investment from AI healthcare specialists, Qure-ai.

“For India and post-Brexit UK, the finalisation of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), enhanced maritime cooperation and a strong partnership in the Indo-Pacific is important,” ORF’s Mishra told Al Jazeera.

“As such, both sides would want that this visit reviews their trade and investment progress and charts a course for a better realisation of the Roadmap 2030, which the two countries agreed to in May last year,” he added.

In May 2021, India and UK laid out a roadmap seeking to revitalise their trade, investment and technological collaborations and bolster defence and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. This roadmap is expected to be fine-tuned after Johnson’s meeting with Modi in New Delhi on Friday, where more announcements about the future of FTAs are also on the agenda.

“Since Brexit, the UK has been keen to have a comprehensive trade deal with India. While that is likely, what its contours look like as India also enhances its economic engagement with Russia is yet to be seen,” ambassador Trigunayat told Al Jazeera.

Internal issues to be addressed?

Amid business and global security discussions, Johnson’s meeting with Modi comes amid the “Partygate” scandal in the UK and violence against Muslims in India.

But ORF’s Mishra thinks Johnson would not want to delve into India’s internal issues.

“Johnson himself has plenty to answer for the ‘Partygate’ scandal back home. On the contrary, his stress on common values, trade, defence, Indo-Pacific and food security tells me that the agenda is quite serious on making bilateral deliverables count during the visit,” he told Al Jazeera.

Kugelman echoed a similar view and highlighted that Modi, like Johnson, would also want to set the contours of the future of the relationship – one that’s important for both the countries.

“In this age of summitry and personal diplomacy, any meeting of world leaders is imbued with significance. This visit is especially important because it comes at a moment when India and the UK are taking sharply different positions on the Ukraine war, arguably the biggest geopolitical challenge of the moment,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Modi may also want to check in on diaspora issues – always an important matter for Delhi, especially when dealing with a country like the UK with such a large Indian diaspora.”

Kugelman said Johnson visiting Gujarat, Modi’s home state, is significant. “This means there’s a lot at stake for Modi personally, which makes success an imperative.”

Source: Al Jazeera