British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in the Indian city of Ahmedabad on Thursday on a two-day visit to bolster ties between the two countries and line up a free trade deal.
Mr Johnson and a 70-member British delegation were received by the head of the western Gujarat state — the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and began a tour of Ahmedabad city, a major commercial hub known as the “Manchester of India” for its cotton-textile industry. It is also the ancestral home of about half of the Indian-heritage population in Britain.
The trip is his first to India as prime minister and the first by a British leader to Gujarat, which has also hosted the heads of state of China, Japan, Israel, and most recently the former US president Donald Trump in 2020.
Mr Johnson was greeted by traditional dance performances and sounds of drums and carnival puppets outside the airport as hundreds of people gathered waving British and Indian flags.
Mr Johnson, who is embroiled in the “partygate” controversy at home after attending gatherings in breach of coronavirus lockdown rules, waved at the boisterous crowd as he made his way to his hotel, passing several large posters welcoming him to the city.
First up on the list of destinations was the Sabarmati ashram, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s homes, where Mr Johnson received two books as gifts, including an unpublished guide written by the revered independence movement leader on how to live in London.
The British prime minister also tried his hand at the spinning wheel called the ‘charkha’, which became a symbol of the campaign for Indian independence.
In a message in the visitors’ diary, Mr Johnson wrote: “It is an immense privilege to come to the ashram of this extraordinary man, and to understand how he mobilised the simple principles of truth and non-violence to change the world for the better.”
Mr Johnson then met Gautam Adani, India’s richest man and chairman of the Adani Group, and the two discussed climate and sustainability, new energy, defence and aerospace technology.
He also squeezed in time in a jam-packed schedule to inaugurate a new centre for excavator manufacturer JCB near Vadodara city. The company’s chairman Lord Bamford backed Mr Johnson’s Conservative leadership bid in 2019.
Before his visit to India, Mr Johnson announced an array of commercial agreements and collaborations, trade and investments worth £1 billion ($1.30bn).
India is the second largest FDI investor in the UK. Its exports to the UK stood at $8.15 billion in 2020-21, while imports totalled $4.95bn.
Since Britain’s departure from the European Union in January 2020, London has sought free trade agreements (FTAs), especially with countries in the Asia-Pacific region that has some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
London has also been negotiating a FTA with India aimed at increasing bilateral trade to more than $100 billion by 2030.
Mr Johnson told British journalists that the countries expected to finalise the FTA by “autumn” and he was hopeful that the investments through the agreement would create 11,000 jobs in the UK.
“What we're focusing on today is the incredible opportunities to deepen this partnership … we've got about a billion pounds worth of investment coming from India into the UK,” Mr Johnson told the BBC.
“They're the second-biggest investor in the UK, that investment alone is going to drive 11,000 jobs. We're hoping to complete another free trade agreement with India by the end of the year, by the autumn,” he added.
Mr Johnson is the latest high-ranking dignitary to visit India after a slew of Western diplomats visited New Delhi as the South Asian country walks a tightrope of diplomacy over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the British leader said that the UK understands New Delhi’s historic relationship with Moscow and wants the two democracies “to stick together” despite differences over Russia’s actions, because of the growth potential in the Indo-Pacific region which is dominated by “autocracies” — an apparent reference to China.
New Delhi has refused to criticise Moscow, its biggest arms supplier, and the two countries have increased energy trade, much to the dismay of western countries which have imposed economic sanctions on Russia.
“As you know the UK is making an Indo-Pacific tilt in our integrated review of our national defence and security strategy. That's the right thing to do given the huge portion of the … growth of the world economy that can be found in this area,”
“India and the UK both share anxieties about autocracies around the world. We're both democracies, and we want to stick together,” he said.
Mr Johnson will leave for the capital, New Delhi, in the evening where he will hold “in-depth talks” with Mr Modi and India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on bilateral ties, defence, and diplomatic and economic partnership on Friday.