fta: PM Rishi Sunak’s officials in Delhi to discuss India-UK FTA: Report

London, Senior officials from British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s team are in New Delhi this week to add momentum behind the ongoing round of negotiations for an India-UK free trade agreement (FTA), according to a UK media report on Saturday.

‘The Guardian’ newspaper reports that while there is no official comment from either side on such a visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government is keen to finalise the FTA by the end of February before Modi sets off on an expected general election campaign trail.

Both countries are heading into an election year in 2024 and signing off on a trade agreement with India will bolster Sunak’s electoral pitch to voters showing signs of anti-incumbency towards his governing Conservatives.

“The deal is still very much on and we think it is possible before both countries have their elections. Both sides are keen to get this done,” an official close to the talks told the newspaper.

The India-UK FTA talks began in January last year with Diwali 2022 set as the initial deadline by then prime minister Boris Johnson.

There have been 13 rounds of negotiations since then, with the Sunak-led Tory government wary of setting any firm new timelines to clinch a deal that is expected to significantly enhance the GBP 36-billion bilateral trading partnership. “The UK and India continue to work towards an ambitious trade deal that works for both countries. We have always been clear we will only sign a deal that is fair, balanced, and ultimately in the best interests of the British people and the economy,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), reiterating the official UK government line. Most recently, External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar confirmed that the FTA was among the many topics on the agenda during his visit to the UK last month and expressed confidence that both sides would find a “landing point that works for both of us”.

“We have made substantial progress… I think both sides are very aware of the importance of the FTA and will make the utmost effort to get there. So, we have to take it as it happens,” Jaishankar told reporters after he met with Sunak and other senior Cabinet ministers.

The minister also discussed the FTA negotiations with UK Opposition leaders in meetings with Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy during his November visit.

There had been some speculation that cricket enthusiast Sunak would be following up his first India visit as UK prime minister for the G20 Summit in September with some cricket diplomacy at the England versus India World Cup clash in Lucknow on October 29 – when the highly anticipated FTA could be signed off.

However, the internal political turmoil of a Cabinet reshuffle within the Tory party and the Israel-Hamas conflict on the global front were said to have side-tracked focus.

“We are very close…We will finish when we finish,” UK Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch told a House of Commons committee when questioned about timelines recently.

Meanwhile, her Indian counterpart, Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal has indicated that nearly 20 of the 26 chapters have been closed.

India is demanding greater access for its skilled professionals from sectors like IT, and healthcare in the UK market, besides market access for several goods at nil customs duties.

On the other hand, the UK is seeking a significant cut in import duties on goods such as scotch whiskey, automobiles, lamb meat, chocolates and certain confectionary items.

Britain is also looking for more opportunities for UK services in Indian markets in segments like telecommunications, legal and financial services (banking and insurance).

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