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UK leader at home in India

He has made it clear that he knows India well and feels at home in the country

Amit Roy London Published 23.07.19, 07:53 PM
In this November 26, 2012, photo, Boris Johnson is seen playing cricket at an event in New Delhi

In this November 26, 2012, photo, Boris Johnson is seen playing cricket at an event in New Delhi (PTI file photo)

So what will a Boris Johnson premiership mean for India?

In a way it was a pity that his half Sikh wife of 25 years and mother of their four children, Marina Wheeler, who has been behind much of his success, was not present when he was declared the new Tory party leader on Tuesday.


But in many conversations with The Telegraph over the years, he has made it clear that he knows India well and feels at home in the country.

On questions such as immigration and student admissions, he is on the liberal wing of the party. British Indians have recognised this and helped him win two mayoral elections — in 2008 and 2016.

In 2017, when Boris was foreign secretary, he was chief guest at a dinner hosted by the Indian Journalists’ Association when he said: “We are shoulder to shoulder with India in tackling the threat of extremist terrorism of the kind that has been seen in our great cities — in London and in Mumbai.

“We cooperate (on) intelligence sharing, and we have absolutely no inhibition about sharing our most advanced technology with India (for example on the Hawk jet).

“We must be as open as possible to talent from India, to students from India — we have to have a very pro-active policy on getting on with the visa system.” He acknowledged that one of his own and the nation’s great heroes, Winston Churchill, had been wrong about India.

“My mind went back to Winston Churchill about whom I wrote a book recently,” he mused. He was referring to The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. He has also written a foreword to Winston Churchill at the Telegraph, edited by A. Warren Dockter, a Cambridge academic who put together Churchill’s despatches to The Daily Telegraph when he was posted in India as a young cavalry officer.

Churchill was a “great journalist by the way, but until the 1940s spent his career being pretty hopeless wrong about many of the big questions of the day”, Boris noted.

He did not comment on Churchill’s guilt or otherwise on the Bengal Famine of 1943 but said: “He was wrong about Gallipoli; he was wrong about the gold standard; he got the abdication totally wrong — he thought the king should basically be allowed to marry whoever he wanted; he got the Chanak crisis (involving Turkey) totally wrong; he made a complete hash of his efforts to strangle the Soviet Union at birth. But when in the 1930s he persistently and balefully prophesied disaster for Indian independence called Swaraj — it’s the Hindi for ‘take back control’ — when he prophesied disaster for the policy of ‘take back control’ he was more completely and spectacularly and utterly wrong that he had ever been before.”

Boris held up the Jaguar car as “a testament to the triumph of modern India. (It is) not only the biggest democracy on earth but a place which in less than 30 years is going to become probably the second biggest, second richest country on earth — if not the first.”

“And of course we Brits look at that in a state of admiration — and, of course, we want to get ever closer to India,” he admitted. “I hope I won’t cause any undue offence if I repeat a point I have made before — it would be a fine thing if the 150 per cent tariff on Scotch whisky could be reduced so that the vast number of Scotch whisky drinkers in India — I am including members of my own family — can enjoy the king of whiskies, the only real authentic whisky at a reasonable price. Isn’t that a humane thing to offer out of a free trade deal? I think it is.”

He continued: “This relationship is about so much more than trade and so much more than whisky and the exchange of goods and services. It is really about the things that — and a time when the world is full of promise but also full of threats and when global trade has actually been declining as a share of global growth — our relationship, the British-Indian relationship, is about the safety and security and freedom that made that trade possible.”

Back in 2012 he had spoken to The Telegraph about visas and student admissions: “I have been very disapproving of some of the measures taken (by Tory governments)…. It is completely crazy for the UK market to be closing itself off some of the best and brightest students from around the world.

“We must be as open as possible to talent from India, to students from India; we have to have a very pro-active policy on getting on with the visa system.

“And we hope in return there will be an opening of Indian markets in goods and services in particular.”

He had spoken then of his wife’s family: “I am very lucky, Marina’s family is Indian, they live in Mumbai and in Delhi and — we tend to see them when we go. I have been quite a few times now at various family weddings — and greatly enjoy it. I love going there. I went to terrific trouble to get the right kurta pyjama and chappals and I had a turban wrapped around my head and a waistcoat and then I walked into the reception and everyone else was in suits....I had overdone it. I have generally had a wonderful time in India.”

When Boris speaks about “my Indian relatives”, he is referring to the fact that Marina is the daughter of the late Sir Charles Wheeler, one time BBC correspondent in Delhi, and her Sikh mother, Dip Singh.

As mayor he persuaded steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal to fund the ArcelorMittal Orbital sculpture outside the Olympic venue in London: “It did carry one very, very important message. And that was the closeness of the relations between London and India. So my message to India is very, very simple — it’s London loves India.

“We want to make sure that we build an ever closer relationship and that we stimulate greater trade and cooperation in those areas in which I think are potential, huge mutual benefit. You will all know the areas I am thinking of — I remember having a conversation about infrastructure. I had an amazing conversation in Delhi with Sheila Dixit — I had been on the Delhi Metro and seen what was going on there. Of course, what I not grasped then was the sheer extent of India’s urbanisation and modernisation programme.”

He also appears to have read some books on Indian history: “Have you read Romila Thapar’s book about early India — it was jolly interesting.”

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