'Ab ki baar chaar sau paar': UK's Labour landslide follows a pattern we saw in India too

It will be easy to dismiss these results -- be it in India or Italy or France or the UK -- as ideological anti-incumbency or as a victory of liberal politics. We'd be wrong.
The man who will UK's new Prime Minister Keir Starmer (File Photo | AP)
The man who will UK's new Prime Minister Keir Starmer (File Photo | AP)

The Keir Starmer-led centre-left Labour Party won by a landslide in the UK elections on Friday morning. Keen observers of Indian politics may well quip that "Ab ki baar chaar sau paar" (This time around, it will be 400-plus) has finally happened somewhere in the world. The Conservative party, in power for the last 14 years, has suffered its worst-ever defeat, a 180-degree reversal of the 2019 election when the shoe was on the other foot of the political spectrum.

It will be easy to look at the UK election as a victory of liberal politics over right-wing thought. We cannot be further from the truth.

From the Indian lens, we do not have to look beyond June 4, when the electorate here provided an eye-opener for the ruling BJP with a massive anti-incumbency vote despite a nationwide push for ideological, Hindutva-led messaging and a massive Ram temple in Ayodhya.

In other European countries, there has been a significant shift in electoral fortunes of those in power. Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, etc, have seen a surge in popularity this year of centre-right or far-right political outfits. In Italy, the shift took place in late-2022 when the far-right Brothers of Italy party won, propelling Giorgia Meloni to prime ministership.

It will be easy to dismiss these results -- be it in India or Italy or France or the UK -- as ideological anti-incumbency. We'd again be wrong.

Voters everywhere have different personalities and personas. And they don't necessarily align with one another. A committed right-wing Hindutva voter also needs a job and social security. Therefore, when it comes to casting her/his vote, it could well be that she/he did not vote BJP but for a candidate that appeared most likely to fulfill her dreams. There is no greater testament to that than the result in Faizabad where Ayodhya falls.

Similarly, Britons had issues that mattered more than Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's ideology and his political economy. The average British citizen, like her US counterpart, is increasingly finding it difficult to make ends meet.

According to data provided by the UK House of Commons Library, the cost of living increased sharply across the UK during 2021 and 2022. The annual rate of inflation reached 11.1% in October 2022, a 41-year high, before easing in subsequent months. The inflation rate was 2.3% in April 2024.

UK's GDP growth rate, too, is slowing down dramatically after a brief 2022 Q1 euphoria of 11% growth (it was actually because the previous quarter saw a massive negative 6.7% growth). In fact, in the fourth quarter of 2023, it turned negative, fuelling fears of a long-drawn-out recession. In the first quarter of 2024, it has somewhat recovered to a positive 0.2%. They are not out of the woods yet.

UK has another important issue for its national discourse -- jobs. According to a June report published by the BBC, UK's unemployment rate in February this year was 4.4%, the highest-ever joblessness number in the post-Covid era (it was 4.3% in September 2021).

Combine lack of job, lack of opportunities, and lack of economic growth with the relentlessly growing inflation rates, and you have the perfect recipe for an economic disaster.

The one person who was held accountable for all of this was Rishi Sunak, who promised the moon and delivered only a crater.

Where does this leave the UK, then?

Keir Starmer who takes over as Prime Minister has a Himalayan task ahead of him. He has to overhaul immigration, the National Health Service, growth, employment, relations with other European countries, and the UK's foreign policy, especially in the wake of tensions in the Indo-Pacific, the Israel-Hamas war and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In the case of India, Starmer has made some overt gestures that will stand him in good stead when dealing with the BJP-led NDA government in New Delhi. In the runup to the election, Starmer visited the Shree Swaminarayan Temple in north London where he directly addressed concerns about vandalism of Hindu temples in the UK. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similar attacks have taken place in the US and Canada as well.

The Indian government has other concerns, too, such as the proliferation of pro-Khalistani associations, similar to the ones in the US and Canada.

However, the big daddy of all negotiations will be the elusive Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The original deadline was November 2022. That never happened, and there is not much progress since then from either side. The Labour Party had made it a point to mention an FTA with India in its manifesto, saying it pledges to forge a new strategic relationship with India, including an FTA if voted into power. Notably, France has been India's strategic partner since 1999.

FTA talks between India and the UK around 30 months old. They began under Boris Johnson's premiership in January 2022, but since then the FTA has fallen victim to political instability. The key points in the 26-chapter FTA document include goods, services, investments and intellectual property rights. The last one, especially, remains a thorn not only in the case of UK, but also with Switzerland, which is a leading innovator and wants to protect its IP in pharmaceuticals.

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Besides, bilateral trade between the UK and India is not really noteworthy -- it was just $21.34 billion in 2023, compared to US ($118.28 billion) and China ($118.4 billion). In fact, the UK is not even in the top 15 in the list of India's bilateral trade partners (China, the US, the UAE, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are the top five).

India is important to any UK government, given that nearly 2 million people of Indian origin live there (UK's overall population is 67 million). With nearly 3% of the country's overall population -- among the highest among all ethnicities -- it is clear that no prime minister of the UK can ignore New Delhi.

Even otherwise, Starmer has a tough ask. He has to balance both domestic expectations as well as international sensibilities. It's going to be a tight ropewalk for him and his government.

(Sachin Kalbag, Senior Fellow at The Takshashila Institution, is a former Washington Correspondent and editor of Indian newspapers. Email:sachin@takshashila.org.in. Twitter: @SachinKalbag)

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