LONDON: Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday told his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi he “hoped” they could agree a trade pact, Downing Street said, despite missing a Diwali deadline to seal the deal.
The two leaders held their first conversation after Sunak, a practising Hindu with Punjabi roots, became the UK’s third leader in two months on Tuesday following the departure of Liz Truss.
Many Indians are said to be delighting in someone with roots in their country becoming Britain’s first prime minister of colour, in a milestone year for Delhi’s relationship with its former colonial ruler.
Sunak told Modi 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,” his office said in a readout of the call.
“The prime minister hoped the UK and India could continue to make good progress in negotiations to finalise a comprehensive free trade agreement,” it added.
Downing Street noted the leaders – set to meet in person at next month’s G20 summit in Indonesia – “also agreed to work together as two great democracies to strengthen the developing economies of the world”.
It cited security, defence and the “economic partnership” as key areas for cooperation.
At the same time, London announced UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will arrive in India on Friday for a two-day visit to meet his counterpart and “discuss strengthening the UK-India relationship”.
The two countries have been negotiating a post-Brexit trade pact for 18 months, but missed a previously hoped-for deadline to conclude it by the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, which began on October 24.
The agreement is important for Britain as it seeks alternative markets after contentiously leaving the European Union in 2020. However, talks have reportedly snagged over fears among the ruling Conservatives that it would lead to an increase in immigration.
Sunak’s parents were born into the Indian diaspora in east Africa, and trace their heritage back to pre-independence Punjab in northern British India.
He is married to Indian-born Akshata Murty, whose father co-founded IT giant Infosys.
India celebrated 75 years since the end of British rule in August, just weeks before becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy when its GDP overtook the United Kingdom’s, according to IMF figures.