BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday (8) that there was a “world of opportunities” for post-Brexit Britain in India, as she wore a saree during a temple charm offensive in Bangalore.
Making her first bilateral trip outside Europe since Britons voted on June 23 to quit the European Union bloc, May described as “limitless” the potential of the relationship with India and its market of 1.3 billion people.
May said Britain would not need to ease visa restrictions – a key demand from Delhi, but a contentious domestic issue – in order to reach a trade deal with India once her country has left the European Union.
“Leaving the European Union presents us with a world of opportunities and I’m determined to seize on them and that’s why I’m here in India,” May told the BBC in Bangalore, adding that £1 billion worth of deals have been signed during her two-day (7-8) visit.
Fending off suggestions that visa concessions would be necessary to reach a deal, May said: “What I’ve heard here from businesses is that they see the UK as an attractive place to do business.”
Britain will offer new services to improve business travel for Indian visitors, including faster clearance through UK border controls. A select group of high-net-worth Indians, nominated by New Delhi, will also gain access to a “bespoke” visa and immigration service, May’s office said.
While in India, the British prime minister said a better visa deal with the country would depend on progress in sending home Indians who have outstayed their visas.
“The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if, at the same time, we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain,” May told reporters in New Delhi after talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday (7).
Both leaders attended the opening of the India-UK Tech Summit in the capital.
A source in May’s office said any improvements would be about the visa process, such as cost and speed, rather than criteria applicants must meet.
Delhi has pushed for an easing of restrictions on students wanting to stay on in Britain after completing university courses, but May said there was already a “good system” in place, offering just small concessions for business travellers.
On Monday, Modi, addressing the tech summit, called for “greater mobility and participation of young people in educational and research opportunities” – a reference to the sharp fall in the number of Indian nationals studying in Britain.
In the five years that May was home secretary, the number of Indian students in Britain fell to 11,864 in June 2015 from 68,238.
Some of May’s cabinet colleagues and business leaders in both countries have urged May to exclude foreign students from Britain’s statistics on net migration, which May has vowed to bring below 100,000 a year, from 336,000 in 2015.
The head of the Indian government’s policy think tank said that, while India was opening up its manufacturing and defence sectors to foreign investors, its professionals faced restrictions on working in Britain and other Western countries.
“There is no such thing as selective free trade,” Amitabh Kant, best known as the originator of the “Incredible India” tourism promotion, told the tech summit, when asked about May’s emphasis on striking a free trade deal with India.
The first day of May’s visit – her first bilateral trip outside Europe since taking office – was overshadowed by the visa issue, but the prime minister was on a charm offensive as she arrived in India’s tech hub, wearing a gold and green saree as she visited the Someshwara Temple.
She was joined at the temple by Hindu priests who presented her with fruit, a flower garland and a piece to silk to give as an offering to the Hindu deity Lord Shiva.
Accompanied by a delegation of around three dozen business leaders, May also met local start-up entrepreneurs and visited a factory run by Dynamatic Technologies, which operates two facilities in Britain.
Earlier in the day, she was met by hundreds of excited flag-wearing children at a local primary school and watched a flypast by the Indian Air Force.
May arrived late on Sunday (6) night in New Delhi on a Royal Air Force aircraft, accompanied by secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, and trade minister Greg Hands.
May endorsed India’s aspirations as a rising 21st-century power, backing its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and promising to cooperate on cyber security to counter violent extremists.
But she did not go as far as her predecessor, David Cameron, who on a 2010 visit said that Pakistan should not “promote the export of terrorism”.
Modi said he had conveyed to May his deep concern regarding cross-border terrorism and the need for the international community to take strong action against states that support and sponsor it.
He did not refer directly to Pakistan but tension has been running high for months, after street protests in Indian Kashmir, an attack on an Indian army base near the frontier in September, and a series of ensuing border clashes.
In Modi, May found a host keen to link market access to freedom of movement – an issue that could complicate her efforts to extract Britain from the EU without being cut off from the bloc’s lucrative single market.
“We believe that such a group should not only focus on ways to increase trade in goods, but also on the expansion of services trade, including through greater mobility of skilled professionals,” Modi told reporters.
His comments highlighted the interests of India’s burgeoning IT services sector whose main base is Bengaluru, the south Indian city, known as the world’s back office, that May visited on Tuesday.
Looking ahead to a post-Brexit world, May said that she wanted Britain to be a committed advocate of free trade.
“It’s why – as Britain leaves the EU – we’re determined not to turn our backs on the world but to forge a new, global, outward-looking role for ourselves,” she said at the India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi on Monday (7).
“Because we know from history what happens when countries do not embrace the opportunities of the world. They stagnate. They get poorer. They don’t protect their people. They get worse off.”
The prime minister said by partnering with Modi’s initiative to build 100 “smart” cities, British business could unlock a further £2 billion over five years, on top of the £1 billion ($1.24 billion) in deals announced during her two-day trip this week.