British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s G20 visit to India set off glaringly different responses.
While the media in the United Kingdom focussed on progress – or the lack of it – on a free trade agreement between the two countries, television news in India turned its gaze to “Sanatan ka danka”, “couple goals”, and the “big Hindu connect”.
There was some reason behind this programming. Sunak, the first UK PM of Indian heritage, is married to Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, and had spoken about being a proud Hindu several times – be it when he landed in Delhi, or when the couple visited the Akshardham Temple. At a religious event at Cambridge University earlier this month, he had chanted “Jai Siya Ram”.
On his arrival in the national capital, the UK PM was received by union minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey, who greeted him with “Jai Siya Ram” and presented him with rudraksh beads, Bhagavat Geeta and Hanuman Chalisa.
Sunak’s faith is seen more than being a personal choice – a bridge to the Hindu diaspora in the UK, and, ostensibly, the Narendra Modi government in India. The UK PM is facing a tough challenge ahead of elections next year, and has to navigate a trade agreement, which his predecessors have failed to sign – among the hurdles is the politically sensitive question of visas for Indian workers and students. If finalised, the agreement could help bolster the point about Brexit being a success.
But his faith became the mainstay of television coverage surrounding the UK PM’s visit to India, even as the British media focussed more on the trade agreement that could boost his voter appeal.
Meanwhile, Sunak’s bilateral meeting with Modi was covered briefly, finding much less space as compared to his Hindu heritage. This was the same across most television platforms.
A few reports also touched upon the issue of Sikh separatists which reportedly came up during bilateral talks.
On , when Sunak arrived, the cameras panned at the kalava or sacred thread on his wrist. “Puri duniya mein sanatan ka danka baj raha hain,” said the anchor. The sound of Sanatan is echoing around the world.
Pictures of Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty splashed across Indian TV and digital media platforms, especially after their visit to Akshardham Temple on the second day of the meet. Most of the TV channels aired bits of Sunak’s 45-minute temple visit alongside the G20 leaders’ tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat.
The headlines focused on his “big Hindu connect”, “couple goals” for his picture-perfect moments with Akshata Murty, and his statement on being a “proud Hindu”.
Many reports also referred to him as “Damaad ji” or son-in-law – Sunak had tagged himself so upon his arrival in India.
“Mandiron ke darshan karte hain, sharab nahi peete, beef nahi khaate,” said a anchor. “He visits temples, doesn’t consume alcohol or beef…Coloured in Indian tradition…He is telling the entire world where his faith resides.”
The UK press on roadblocks
The FTA is expected to grant more access to British companies to India’s 1.4 billion market and is seen as a “major post-Brexit prize by the Conservative UK Government”, Independent said in a . However, the trade talks that began in January 2022 “reportedly include disagreement over an increase of visas for Indians to work in the UK and differences over rules around selling British-made cars to India”.
Last year, Conservative party’s Indian-origin leader Suella Braverman had bluntly expressed “reservations” about relaxing visa policy for Indians. “Look at migration in this country – the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”
A piece was scathing. “Whether Mr Sunak – who says he’s aware of being referred to as ‘India’s son-in-law’ - can take any domestic or international successes home from his charm offensive, will take a few more months to become clear,” read an analysis by political correspondent Tamara Cohen. “Sunak was extremely eager to please India’s Modi, but the real test is what’s in the trade deal”, read the headline.
A BBC noted, “Trade negotiations between the two countries began in January last year and have stretched across twelve rounds, with the next round scheduled for later this month. Key interests for the UK side include lowering India's high import tariffs on British-made cars, dairy products and drinks including Scotch whisky. The UK has been keen to get India to allow greater access to UK financial and other professional services firms to operate in India. But Mr Sunak is facing pressure not to relax UK visa rules for Indian nationals, amid reports that Home Secretary Suella Braverman has concerns it could hamper efforts to bring down net immigration.”
Modi and Sunak, both faced with polls next year, are negotiating a free trade agreement that could boost their voter appeal. The trade deal, one of the most “coveted prizes of Brexit”, could especially be crucial for Sunak, who “unlike Modi is trailing badly in the polls”, said a Politico .
A Telegraph titled ‘Britain’s best hope is high growth India – not the sclerotic EU bloc’ stated that “Indian workers are arriving in Britain at the rate of 1,500 a week…double the pre-Brexit level”. It also mentioned an increase in visas for Nigerians, Zimbabweans and other EU countries.
India’s FTA policy proposal advocates that the UK grant more business visas to Indian nationals. This puts Sunak in a difficult spot. He has to balance the trade deal as per the majority consensus in his party, convert Brexit promises into tangible gains, and of course, negotiate a mutually beneficial deal with Modi.
In media interactions ahead of his arrival in New Delhi, Sunak had said he was ready to “discuss corporate visas” but had insisted that the deal was “not guaranteed”, the Guardian had . Meanwhile, in contrast, the Politico “Modi’s officials” as saying that a deal with the UK was “essentially ready for signing, with both governments prepared on most subjects”.
However, after the Sunak-Modi meeting, the two leaders seemed to have made some headway. A statement released by the UK government said lots of hard work was still needed, but the two governments were ready to “work at pace”. Sunak also accepted Modi’s invite to return to India for bilateral talks on the trade deal.
He abstained from raising “thorny diplomatic issues” of India’s oil imports from Russia and the case of UK citizen Jagtar Singh Johal, who is potentially facing the death penalty, the Politico reported.
The Politico report also cited “senior business representative” who reportedly said that Modi wanted a rapid deal ahead of the polls next year, which would also be “politically expedient” for Sunak.
While UK platforms did cover Sunak’s remarks on being a “proud Hindu”, or “son-in-law”, the bulk of the coverage pertained to key issues the two prime ministers could have discussed in Delhi. But for sections of Indian media, it was faith over economy, again.