London | The UK's Opposition Leader Keir Starmer has described the ups and downs of the government's negotiations towards a free trade agreement (FTA) with India as ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham' and committed the Labour Party to pursuing an "always happy" bilateral relationship.
During his speech at a Diwali celebration in the Houses of Parliament complex in London organised by the British Indian think tank 1928 Institute last week, Starmer referenced the Bollywood box-office hit which translates as sometimes happy, sometimes sad. India and the UK are currently in the 14th round of FTA negotiations to enhance the GBP 36-billion bilateral trading partnership, with several expected completion points having passed.
“We will be rebuilding Britain's reputation on the international stage and that means a new strategic partnership with India,” said Starmer.
“The Tories are working on a free trade agreement, I think. It's all a bit stop-and-start. In fact, you could almost call the negotiations ‘Khabi Kushi Khabhie Gham'. But Labour wants more than that – we want a deeper understanding. You can call it an always happy relationship. A relationship based on our shared values of democracy, aspiration and respect,” he said.
The FTA talks began in January last year with Diwali 2022 set as the initial deadline by then prime minister Boris Johnson. Under the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak-led Tory government, no new timelines have been set but both sides are keen to get things signed off before a general election year in India and the UK in 2024.
Meanwhile, the Opposition Labour Party, which is leading the opinion polls over the governing Conservatives ahead of the expected polls, is keen to reach out to Britain's estimated 1.9 million strong Indian diaspora electorate.
“To British Indians, I want to express my admiration and respect for everything you do for our country. Without your efforts, this country would be diminished in so many ways,” said Starmer, who was joined by senior members of his shadow cabinet at the event last Wednesday.
His shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, shared reflections from his wide-ranging discussions with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who was in the UK on a five-day visit last week.
“We talked, of course, about the free trade agreement. We talked about development aid and partnership across South Asia and also, Africa... about tech and digital, and the huge contribution science and tech can make in an age of AI (artificial intelligence),” he said.
In addition to leaders representing the Hindu faith, a cross-section of parliamentarians and activists joined the community cohesion-themed Diwali event which included messages of goodwill and solidarity by prominent members of the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths.
“In these times, the message of light over darkness, of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance is so important,” said Anneliese Dodds, chair of the Labour Party and shadow women and equalities secretary.