Rajnath Singh, the Defence Minister of London, is scheduled to begin a three-day trip to the UK starting Monday (8 January). This visit is considered crucial to the bilateral relationship in terms of defence and security, as the last visit at this ministerial level occurred 22 years ago.
The Indian side cancelled Singh's scheduled trip to the UK in June 2022 due to "protocol reasons", which has made his tour next week greatly awaited.
In addition to comprehensive discussions with UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, Singh is anticipated to review a formal Guard of Honour and pay visits to the London memorials of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar. His three-day schedule is also likely to include a community interaction with the Indian diaspora members residing in the UK.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South and Central Asian Defence, Strategy and Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, highlighted the significance of this visit both in terms of optics and substance. He noted that this marks the first visit of an Indian Defence Minister to the UK in 22 years. The last such visit was made by George Fernandes, the then Defence Minister of a previous BJP-led government, who travelled to London on 22 January 2002.
Roy-Chaudhury, a defence analyst who has advocated for such a visit in his high-level talks over the years, interprets Singh's anticipated visit as a sign of enhanced political ties and trust-building between India and the UK. This comes after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's visit to India for the G20 Summit in September 2023.
The visit aims to strengthen military collaboration and defense industry relationships with the UK. This will be achieved by expanding on the discussions from the Defence Consultative Group (DCG) meeting that took place in Delhi in November 2023, which involved Secretaries, and the first-ever 2+2 Foreign and Defence Dialogue in October 2023, which included Joint Secretaries, he explained.
“The UK is no longer one of India’s top five strategic partners. However, the resumption of a strong India-UK defence technological and industrial partnership could take place through the delivery of ongoing projects on aero-engines with Rolls-Royce; naval electric propulsion with GE (Naval) UK and Rolls-Royce; and ground-based air defence system with MBDA (UK)," he said.
"Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is likely to visit one of these arms manufacturing sites during his visit to the UK,” he noted as reported by The Hindu.
The visit, set against the ongoing backdrop of India's concerns over pro-Khalistan violence occurring in the UK and certain contentious historical issues related to UK's defence supplies to India, will be closely monitored.
Analysts suggest that this chance for ministerial-level discussions should primarily concentrate on implementing the 'Make in India' and 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' initiatives of the Narendra Modi government in the defence sector.
The strengthening of the defence partnership between India and the UK can be traced back to April 2022 when Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, visited India. During his visit, he introduced the Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for India. The UK government stated that this would "cut down on bureaucracy" and significantly "shorten the delivery times for defence procurement".
As India and the UK gear up for their respective general elections this year, every facet of their relationship is under intense scrutiny. This includes accelerated discussions regarding a free trade agreement (FTA), which is anticipated to substantially boost the GBP 36-billion bilateral partnership.
Nishtha Anushree is Senior Sub-editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @nishthaanushree.
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