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9th June 2023

“This can be done in a day”: Ebookers founder Dinesh Dhamija on the UK-India trade deal

Christopher Jackson


Growing up in Surrey in the 1990s, you could be forgiven for thinking the future was American: there was the easy triangulation rule of Bill Clinton; the popularity of Seinfeld and Friends made even people who had grown up in Woking talk with a slight New York accent; grunge music reigned supreme as, in literature, did the books of Updike, Roth and Bellow. It was such a certainty that I remember vividly when the assumption was called definitively into question.

In 1998, touching down in Mumbai for my Gap Year, I had never seen so many people vying for space: a veritable carnival of joyous activity. Standing outside a Macdonald’s, I dropped an enormous wad of rupees on the floor, and found nearly 30 natives of that marvellous city jostling to help me pick them up and return them to me. Their unanimous kindness and bemusement at my panic stays with me to this day.

I knew then, without being able to formulate it clearly, that the future might just as well belong to India. Whatever one thought of the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, nobody who witnessed the debates at that time will have forgotten the promise of a new era of international trade and fabulous global opportunity.

Not even the most ardent Brexit supporter would think that this promise has been made good on. In the last years, and especially since the end of the Johnson administration, things have gone eerily silent on this front. To find out why, and to gauge the possibilities of the future I speak to Dinesh Dhamija, the former MEP, and the founder of the online travel agency Ebookers. Dhamija is gearing up to the publication of his important book The Indian Century.

Dhamija grew up as the son of an Indian diplomat and had the peripatetic upbringing such children do, spending time in India, Mauritius, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. This background, together with his business success and experience of the European Parliament, is what makes him such a compelling commentator on UK-India affairs.

Dhamija explains to me the mood in India today. “People who live there are all very entrepreneurial and innovative – you have to be when the pot of gold is so small and there are so many people competing for it.” India recently overtook China as the most populous country in the world. The demographics create, says Dhamija, a particularly exciting landscape of innovation. “They see millionaires on the internet – Modi hasn’t blocked that like the Chinese have. And they watch programmes like The Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den and then they say: ‘What about me?’”

This ambition has created some astonishing success stories: “There are now 100 unicorns a year in India – those who started a business and within one year are valued at $1 billion. So an example, they sell ten per cent of their shares for $1oo million then they’re worth a billion. Of course, that’s not all Indian money,” Dhamija continues, “but usually money from the United States, or perhaps Singapore.”

It’s also important to consider the youthfulness of the Indian population: “In India, 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 35,” Dhamija explains. “They’ve got energy – compared to China and also compared to the West. It’s all: ‘Let’s get this – do that’.”

Of course, before discussing the possibilities of a trade deal between the two nations, it is important to consider the precise nature of the colonial inheritance from the perspective of India: “India in 1700 had 23 per cent of the world’s GDP, and was the richest country in the world,” Dhamija tells me. “When the British left, India had three per cent of the world’s GDP. In 250 years, it went from riches to rags.”

Is there a psychological difficulty then, I ask, for Indians when it comes to doing a trade deal with their former colonial rulers? Dhamija is philosophical. “One thing about history is that as time passes, you forget things. History is written by the victors. When I was doing A-Level history in the UK, we never learned about what was happening in the colonies good or bad.”

So are the elites who forge trade deals liable to take a relaxed view of the past? Dhamija takes a nuanced view: “It depends on the politics. From the Indian point of view, they’re going to say: ‘We’re not going to sell ourselves down the river.’ Or they’ll say, ‘We need something back’. You might also hear history professors say that the UK took $45 trillion dollars of money out of India in today’s money – but if you only pay heed to such voices, then you’re never going to have a trade deal.”

That’s why, for Dhamija, it needs to be clearly spelled out what a trade deal would mean: put simply, it’s the single biggest economic win which the Sunak administration could post on the board before the General Election next year. “The pros are that the UK will have an extra 240,000 jobs within three years – and these are new jobs.”

And the situation, Dhamija explains, will be even better for India: “Because of its purchasing power it will have many more – perhaps a million.”

These figures are eye-catching and Dhamija is able to take you through his calculations from a perspective of deep experience: “I was head of the India desk for the European Parliament, and we made our workings then. For each trade deal which the EU signed, within three years, its trade doubled. We also worked out that for every EUR60,000 of new exports, you create one new job.”

With the current UK export to India being £12 billion a year, you can expect that to double on the back of a trade deal. “That doubles to £24 billion,” continues Dhamija. “Divide that extra £12 billion by £50,000 and you come up with 240,000 jobs.”

This sounds extremely exciting. But will a deal happen? Dhamija charts the progress so far: “Even though I don’t like Boris, he could have done it,” he says. Whatever faults Boris suffered from, he never lacked ambition, just as he was rarely bereft of modesty.

But what then ensues is a recital of three own goals by the UK government which add up to a compelling portrait of incompetence. “When the trade delegation was here, Home Secretary Suella Braverman came out with her line that the worst culprits in overstaying their Visas are the Indians. The delegation packed up and left. That was last September.”

Own goal number one. And number two? “In January, the BBC put out a two part documentary series on the 2002 Gujarat riots and its conclusion was that Modi was culpable of homicide. That really screwed up the talks,” recalls Dhamija.

And here’s own goal number three: “About two months ago, a group of Khalistanis were protesting outside the Indian Embassy in Aldywch, and one of them climbed up and took down the Indian flag – an insult, according to the Indians. They said: ‘Try doing that to the Chinese or the US embassy and see what happens. You want a trade deal with us, you do something which makes us feel good.’ And I agree with that.”

What’s frustrating about the above is how easily it could all have been prevented: inexperience on the part of the Sunak administration perhaps. In relation to the Braverman gaffe, Dhamija argues that the Cabinet Secretary needs to give a simple instruction that no politician should comment on the matter until the deal is done. “Trade has got nothing to do with immigration,” he adds.

The second own goal might seem a bit more complicated on the face of it, but Dhamija is clear: “The Chairman of the BBC was appointed because he got a loan for Boris. All the trustees of the BBC are government appointees. How can you say it’s a separate arms-length organisation?” In relation to the third own goal, it’s a no-brainer to have better security at the Indian Embassy.

With this sort of thing going on, a shoo-in has now become unnecessarily stodgy. “There are people who want the trade deal to be done; there are people who don’t,” Dhamija says. “People in the UK need to know what the advantages of a trade deal are – and that includes the civil servants who either haven’t done the calculations or don’t know how to do so.”

So is anyone actively opposing it? “Anyone who’s ignorant about it,” replies Dhamija, pithily.

It seems especially odd post-Brexit to be having this conversation. We hear about Sunak’s minor wins in the Pacific and in Japan, and see much disappointment over the question of our failure to make progress over a US deal, but little coverage related to India. “The US wants access to the NHS,” explains Dhamija. “We’re at ‘the back of the queue’ as Obama put it – there’s no special relationship when it comes to a trade deal. We’ve done a trade deal with Australia which was horrendous for us simply because we wanted to show there was a trade deal in some form or other.”

All of which ups the stakes still further on the question of India. Why has there been loss of will? “No one explains it,” says Dhamija. “Nigel Farage is blaming the politicians. Meanwhile, India knows the UK needs it more. The government sometimes respond by saying that we have record low unemployment but look at how many people have gone out of the workforce – especially the over-50s, which means unemployment is in reality far higher on a like to like basis. We need not only strawberry pickers but people in the NHS, architects, engineers. They’re not giving the right figures to everyone.”

And what is Modi’s position on the deal? “Modi wants Make in India –

meaning that everything should be manufactured there. If he wants to buy something from the UK, he’d like some aspect of it to be made in India – a technology transfer sort of thing. Secondly he knows that Chinese income has gone up by seven times per capita in the last 50 years. India will go up by at least four times in the next 10 to 15 years. Starbucks and Prêt à Manger recently opened. Amazon’s second largest operation after Seattle is in Hyderabad.”

Encouragingly, Dhamija explains that the sector-specific sticking points have largely disappeared on both sides. Concerns about whiskey and wine have largely been taken care of. “It’s political will now. It could be done in a day. If Modi says: “Do it”, then Sunak says: “Do it”, it will be done in a day. We need that sledgehammer. At the moment, they’re not focusing on it and finishing it. It was meant to be done by Diwali last year. Civil servants will always find a coma or a dot on an ‘i’ or a cross on a ‘t’, but a deadline is good.”

Why did Boris seem more suited than Sunak for the task?  Dhamija sighs: “He has more bluster. He would hug Modi; it was a personal relationship perhaps. Rishi can’t seem to do that: he’s far younger and he’s diminutive compared to Modi – by which I mean, physically slight, not in terms of intelligence of course. I think you have to do it at the spur of the moment. You sit together and say, ‘Can’t we do this dammed thing? You want the Koh-i-Noor diamond – here it is!’”

How big an issue is the return of the diamond, currently set into the crown of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother as part of the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London? “It’s bigger than the whiskies or the cars, as that’s all been dealt with” Dhamija concedes. “But the whole of the British Museum is full of looted stuff, so everyone will say: “Give us the Elgin Marbles” and so on. But the moment the UK says it will give money, they’ll ask for more. Really, it’s a question of saying sorry and the UK still hasn’t done that successfully.”

When I think of India, I consider how much I love it: the nation’s fascinating obsession with cricket; the batting of  Tendulkar, Dravid and Sehwag; the novels of RK Narayan; the Amaravati Marbles (also in the British Museum as it happens); the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad; the four days I spent doing not much next to the Taj Mahal in 1998; the Ganges at five in the morning, the sun rising to draw back the curtain on another unfathomable day full of the teemingness of India.

Could a politician ever evoke India to try and bring our relations closer together? Dhamija is pessimistic. “That ability’s not there. They’re politicians and they fear being criticised for selling the UK down the river. But if it’s done as two guys – Modi and Sunak – getting on well, and if we talk always about the possibility of those 240,000 jobs – then we can do it”

Spending time in Dhamija’s company makes you feel that it just might be possible – and definitely that it should be. The ball is in Rishi Sunak’s court now. If he wants to win the next election, it’s pretty clear what he needs to do.


The Indian Century will be published by Finito World Publishing in September 2023

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