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India’s Tit-for-tat Diplomacy over UK Parliament Debate is Working, and isn’t

File photo of PM Narendra Modi with British PM Boris Johnson. (Reuters)

File photo of PM Narendra Modi with British PM Boris Johnson. (Reuters)

Reprisals of another kind would arise if India were to decide it isn't prepared to take abuse from British MPs and also open doors to flow of more British goods.

The hangover from the UK parliament debate over the farm law protests in India has clearly not lifted. External affairs minister S Jaishankar’s statement in the Indian parliament in response to a question on racism in Britain is a firm sign that the diplomatic demarche for which the UK high commissioner was summoned last week remains more than some passing diplomatic matter.

Britain’s minister for South Asia Lord Ahmed is visiting India this week to steer relations past that roadblock. That’s something Britain wants very much to do; the visit this week is intended to smooth the way for agreements through the course of an expected visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson early this summer.

India’s tit-for-tat diplomacy is working, and isn’t. It’s working to the extent that the Indian government has sent out a message to the Foreign Office in Britain that if the British parliament can debate India’s internal affairs, so can the Indian parliament debate the internal affairs of Britain. And emphatically through so doing, it continues to oppose that British debate, seen in India as unwanted intervention, in the first place.

The tit-for-tat diplomacy isn’t working publicly because the media response in the two countries is widely, even wildly, different. Indian media was buzzing, and Indian officials bristling, over the UK debate. British media is disinterested enough in the debate in the Indian parliament to have remained ignorant of it. Any suggestion that any of British media should find that a matter to report even fractionally compared to the extent Indian media reported the UK debate would be considered laughable by almost every editor in the UK.

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That media imbalance talks right back into the diplomatic balancing India is attempting. British officials will say undoubtedly that they entirely respect India’s democracy and the right for Indian parliamentarians to debate any matter they choose, just as parliamentarians can and do in Britain. In the politest diplomatic language, the UK would essentially be saying that its MPs will say what they want, and if Indian MPs do too, they don’t care.

Balance

“What I do want to say is that we have strong ties with the UK (and) we will take up such matters with great candour when required,” Jaishankar said in response to a question raised by BJP MP Ashwini Vaishnaw in the Lok Sabha. “We will monitor these developments very, very closely. We will raise it when required and we will always champion the fight against racism and other forms of intolerance.”

Vaishnaw had raised the Meghan and Harry interview to cite racism within the UK. He had also raised the case of Indian-origin student Rashmi Samant who was asked to quit as president of the Oxford University Student Union days after taking over. Vaishnaw said she was cyberbullied, and that her parents’ Hindu beliefs were attacked. Rashmi Samant’s may not be the best case for an Indian parliamentarian to have raised; she quit after her views she had expressed earlier were dug out and considered racist – that they were considered so was not necessarily racist in itself.

So if British officials are not quite fuming over this Lok Sabha exchange as Indian officials did over the UK debate, India is far from paying back in the same coin. That debate was no more than a dozen MPs airing their views in a room next to the main parliament building, joined by a few others online. Did the Indian government overreact to the UK debate?

Over that debate the Indian government summoned the UK high commissioner in New Delhi to issue a strong diplomatic demarche. The Indian concern was not just over the holding of a democratic debate. It arose from the UK government’s endorsement of the petition that led to the debate, even before the debate could be held. And it arose from UK minister Nigel Adams’s reply to the debate where he spoke less supportively of the Indian government than he quite reasonably could have.

But Jaishankar’s statement does raise matters that the British would more than mind; that would in fact worry them. That worry would not arise from opinions expressed about racism in Britain; such counter-moves are made in diplomacy all the time. It would from fear of another kind of counterbalancing the Indian government could potentially consider.

Reprisals of another kind would arise if the Indian government were to decide it is not prepared to take abuse from British MPs on the one hand and open its doors to the flow of more British goods with the other. That would be repayment in another coin, and those are the coins that the British most count.