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Rishi Sunak and Narendra Modi have injected greater impetus into UK-India trade negotiations, instructing ministers and officials to work “at pace” to secure a deal.
The UK prime minister and his Indian counterpart exhibited strikingly warm chemistry when they met on the margins of the G20 summit in New Delhi on Saturday, embracing each other with a bear hug, back slapping and laughter.
Sunak is the first UK prime minister of Indian descent and this weekend marked his first visit to India since arriving in Number 10. His trip has sparked interest in India, winning mention on the front page of The Times of India this week.
After the bilateral meeting, Sunak expressed confidence that London and New Delhi could “work through” hurdles stalling a free trade agreement, stressing that there was a “desire on both of our parts to see a successful trade deal concluded”.
Before the trip, UK officials were cautiously hopeful of securing an accord by Diwali on November 12, raising the prospect of Sunak paying a second visit to India this autumn if a deal is clinched.
Sunak also played up the prospect of deeper bilateral co-operation on defence and security, education and research after his meeting with Modi. India will be “one of the most important geopolitical actors” of coming decades, the UK prime minister said, adding it was crucial Britain maintained close ties.
Downing Street said the two leaders had held a “productive” conversation about a deal, adding that they “agreed that ministers and negotiating teams would continue to work at pace towards a [free trade agreement]”.
While sticking points remain, Britain is hopeful of a deal that would expand a market for whisky and cars in India, alongside boosting services and investment opportunities. India meanwhile wants to bolster its export of manufactured goods and services to the UK, and to secure additional work visas for its citizens.
Anglo-Indian relations have endured cooler patches since Sunak entered Number 10 last October, including in March when Sikh separatists in London tore down a flag from India’s high commission during a protest. That prompted a suspected tit-for-tat response from New Delhi, where police removed security barricades from outside Britain’s high commission.
However, Sunak appeared at pains to start the meeting with Modi on a positive footing, praising the new convention centre modified to accommodate the G20 summit as “absolutely beautiful”.
The UK prime minister added that his two daughters had been following Chandrayaan-3, the Indian space mission that landed the first robotic probe near the moon’s south pole last month, saying “everyone was buzzing” about the “historic” moment.
Sunak confirmed, however, after the meeting that he had not shied away from raising the case of jailed Briton Jagtar Singh Johal, who is facing the death penalty in India.