2022: Tumult that led to Britain's first Indian-origin Prime Minister
LONDON: A politically and economically tumultuous 2022 culminated in a historic first for the UK as Indian-origin Rishi Sunak took charge at 10 Downing Street as the country's first non-white Prime Minister. At 42, the British Indian leader is also the youngest in 200 years and firmly set his stall in favour of India soon after being elected Conservative Party leader on Diwali.
''The Prime Minister said he was a visual representation of the historic links between the UK and India, and intended to build on this relationship to develop ever closer ties between our two countries,” said the Downing Street readout of Sunak’s introductory phone call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It came close on the heels of his former partygate scandal-hit boss Boris Johnson’s Diwali deadline to clinch a much-anticipated India-UK free trade agreement (FTA) being abandoned just days before. Sunak has since declared that the UK is “delivering a new FTA with India”, with the sixth round of negotiations taking place in New Delhi this month.
The political turmoil unleashed by his predecessor, Liz Truss – the UK’s shortest-serving Prime Minister forced to resign following a disastrous un-funded mini-budget – resonated across the bilateral relationship when her Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, threw the FTA talks into disarray with ill-judged attacks on Indians as “visa overstayers”. Sunak’s reappointment of his fellow Indian-origin colleague to his Cabinet in the same post was accompanied by some placating moves, with the launch of the UK-India Young Professionals Scheme soon after the first meeting between Prime Ministers Sunak and Modi at the G20 Summit in Indonesia.
''I am pleased that even more of India's brightest young people will now have the opportunity to experience all that life in the UK has to offer – and vice-versa – making our economies and societies richer,'' declared Sunak, with reference to the reciprocal scheme to be launched in early 2023. It will allow 3,000 18-30-year-old degree-educated Indians to access visas annually to live and work in the UK for up to two years, with a similar offer for British graduates.
It marks one of many highlights for Indian students in the UK, who overtook China for the first time as the largest cohort of international students. However, with migration numbers shooting up, there are growing murmurings of a clamp down on international students, something education chiefs have warned against and will remain an issue on the 2023 watch list.
The reinstatement of the UK on the list of countries that are offered speedy e-visas for travellers was another key outcome of that all-important first Modi-Sunak bilateral meeting, confirmed by India’s new High Commissioner to the UK – Vikram Doraiswami, who also became the first Indian diplomat to present his credentials to King Charles III.
The new monarch ascended to the throne after suffering an enormous loss in the passing away of his mother Queen Elizabeth II – Britain’s longest-serving monarch – on September 8, which unleashed a worldwide outpouring of grief and saw thousands queue for days to pay respects while she lay in state at Westminster Hall in London. President Droupadi Murmu represented India at the State Funeral of the Queen at Westminster Abbey in London, which was followed by a ceremonial burial at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
Charles has since resumed the duties of being monarch and will be formally crowned at a grand coronation ceremony earmarked for May 6, 2023. While his son and heir, Prince William, will be by his side, the role to be played by his younger son Harry will remain to be seen following a series of dramatic claims of racism and media attacks in a new Netflix documentary entitled ‘Harry and Meghan’. It came against the backdrop of the resignation of a senior Buckingham Palace aide following a race row, condemned by the palace in a rare intervention to say that ''racism has no place in our society''.
While the year was dominated by turbulence, there were celebratory moments too – including the gala events to mark the Queen's Platinum Jubilee in June and also the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, highlighted by naval ship INS Taringini docking on the shores of England for Independence Day festivities in August. Geetanjali Shree made history as the first Indian author to win the International Booker Prize for her Hindi novel ‘Ret Samadhi’/Tomb of Sand’ and India’s Greenhouse-in-a-Box sustainable agriculture project won Prince William’s coveted GBP 1-million Earthshot Prize for 2022.
Meanwhile, the ongoing battle to extradite economic offenders wanted in India on fraud and money laundering charges moved slowly through the UK’s legal system. Fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, wanted in the estimated USD 2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) loan scam case, lost a major appeal against his extradition on mental health grounds and is due to be extradited by next month. However, delays are expected if Modi makes a human rights appeal in Europe or applies for asylum akin to former Kingfisher Airlines chief Vijay Mallya’s case, which is believed to be caught up in the UK’s confidential asylum process. Sanjay Bhandari, wanted for tax evasion and money laundering, also continues to appeal against his extradition cleared by Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London.
Overall, Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year “permacrisis” – an extended period of instability and insecurity – best describes 2022, given the political upheavals and an ongoing cost of living crisis due to the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of the COVID pandemic.