Yash Sinha
Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha Image Credit: Nilima Pathak

Currently the Central Information Commissioner, Yashvardhan K. Sinha is a former diplomat with more than 37 years of experience. Sinha says the opportunities the job provided were unparalleled in many ways and he was fortunate to serve the country.

Among the several high positions that he held, he also served as additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran division. Prior to that, he was consul general of India in Dubai and deputy chief of mission in Abu Dhabi. The 1981 batch Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer has also served as India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka.

The former high commissioner of India to the United Kingdom said he had several interesting experiences to recount. But, as of now, he is not sure if he would like to publish a memoir someday.

He spoke to Gulf News in an exclusive interview:

GULF NEWS: Do you believe Brexit irreparably damaged the UK’s standing in the world? What are the options available now realistically for UK to regain its balance?

YASHVARDHAN K. SINHA: I think this is a loaded question and I would not like to pass any sweeping judgements at this stage. It is a major inflection point in UK’s history — its past and what is happening today. The Brexit decision is very significant. Its impact is already being felt, but we have to wait and see what happens at the end of the month or later when UK exits the European Union (EU). That’s because there will be a substantial impact — both negative and positive, depending on who you speak to. However, if the UK leaves without a deal, it will create a major problem for everyone, but the UK itself is likely to suffer the most, at least in the short to medium term.

Much is heard about the negative impacts; what positives do you foresee?

The advocates for Brexit want to take back control from Brussels and determine their own fate. This was also a vote against unfettered immigration. So, once the control of policy shifts back to London, it will be free to set its own rules and regulations. However, we must realise that this would be influenced to a large degree by the existing regime, whether it is on rules and regulations or trade policy. So, the benchmark is already set. Initially, at least, they would either be adopted in their entirety or tweaked to suit British conditions. Perhaps, a new framework may evolve in the future. As of now, there is considerable uncertainty and confusion.

Reportedly, former UK prime minister David Cameron, during the ill-fated referendum, was sure that Liberal Democrats would win more seats and these elected members would stand as a bulwark against his own party members. Is this correct?

I have heard that point of view. But I am not in a position to comment on whether it is true or not. The fact is that the Brexit referendum was promised in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the general elections in 2015. Some are of the view that perhaps prime minister Cameron believed that he might not win a majority. But he did and the rest is history.

Is there a strong nostalgia for the Empire among the older members of the party as well as the broader civil society, which has created this existential crisis?

I am not sure whether nostalgia alone has created the existential crisis as the decision to leave the EU has led to considerable disruption. There were some who hark back to past glory, and for them the delusion of Empire 2.0 seemed a possibility. However, I think this was dispelled early because there was a realisation that the present situation is vastly different from when Britain had a disproportionate influence on the global stage. So, even if there was or is lingering nostalgia, it is quite misplaced because the world today is fundamentally different.

Was Brexit pre-ordained? In the 1960s and 1970s, and in the early days of the EU, UK was already a doubter, a closet Brexiter. Your comments.

If we recall the history of the so-called European project, the Treaty of Paris of 1951 established the European Coal and Steel Community with the UK declining to join. It was only in 1957 when the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and the European Economic Community (EEC) that was set up under the Treaty of Rome that the UK began reconsidering the potential benefits of cooperation. So, the UK was a late convert and a reluctant advocate of the European project.

It joined in 1973 and two years later conducted its first referendum under Prime Minister Harold Wilson on whether to remain or leave. While Remain won a big majority, Britain was already exploring exit options. During the course of its membership of the EU, it often sought opt-outs over issues like single currency, charter of human rights, justice and home affairs legislation etc. In that sense, it has always been a reluctant member. But things began to change over time. What has happened now is that while Brexiteers have prevailed, I am not sure if the balance will remain in their favour in the future.

You have always spoken of the reforms in UK’s immigration policy. How will this be impacted by the Brexit outcome? Can the UK really afford a push back on its migrant workforce?

We have to look at two aspects as in pure economic terms it is a matter of demand and supply. There is a large migrant force from Europe and from outside Europe working in the UK, which serves the UK economy well. It adds value to the economy. The National Health Service itself has 25 per cent or perhaps more of doctors and paramedics from India or of Indian origin. There are many others who come from EU member-states. If they were to leave, then there would be a major crisis in the health services in the UK. Similarly, in the services sector, whether it is the blue-collared workforce or the hospitality sector, one finds immigrants contributing meaningfully to the UK economy. So, one has to look at it from that perspective.

On the other side, obviously unfettered immigration creates its own societal and economic problems. So there has to be a balance. UK cannot do without its migrant workforce. Moreover, it has some world-class universities and higher education institutions and they are trying to attract the best minds globally. A narrow and restrictive visa regime would discourage many from studying in the UK.

The UK government says it remains committed to bringing net migration down to sustainable levels. What does it mean by sustainable levels? How can one define sustainable levels?

This question should be directed to the UK government authorities, because it is they who need to strike the right balance.

What is your assessment on the India-UK trade ties? How much of turbulence will Brexit create in this aspect?

Brexit is going to have an impact on UK’s relations with the whole world, especially major global partners. As far as India and the UK are concerned, during 2017-18, the total trade was $14.5 billion (Dh53.33 billion) in goods and another $7 billion in services. UK is our 17th largest trading partner. But it is a major investment partner of India and this holds good for cross investments. UK is the fourth-largest investor into India and India is the fourth-largest investor in the UK. While British companies have invested around $26 billion since 2000, currently 800 Indian companies have invested in Britain and created over 105,000 jobs. So this relationship is a substantial economic partnership. And any disruption will obviously have an adverse impact. But the governments of both countries are committed to strengthening this partnership and possibly conclude a free trade agreement in the future. But again we need to see the fine print of Brexit before we can negotiate a mutually beneficial FTA.

How have the two countries been working on it?

There exists a Joint Economic and Trade Committee and a Joint Working Group is already in place to explore the contours of a possible trade deal. A Joint Trade Review agreed upon in January 2018 would help in identifying key areas and product lines on both sides, which need to be pushed and at the same time help in eliminating any policy or procedural roadblocks, an essential building block for an FTA. Also, soon after the Brexit vote, a study commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat identified 13 new products, which India can export to the UK with an estimated market access of around $2 billion. A well-negotiated FTA could increase bilateral trade by 26 per cent, including a substantial increase in UK’s exports to India. I see Brexit as both an opportunity and a challenge for India.

Who is Yashvardhan K. Sinha:

• Yashvardhan K. Sinha was born on October 4, 1958 in Bihar.

• He handled several important assignments at the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.

• Served in diplomatic missions in South Asia, the Middle East (including as consul general of India in Dubai), Europe, South America and the Permanent Mission of India at the United Nations in New York.

• He served as High Commissioner of India to the UK.

• Appointed Central Information Commissioner on January 1, 2019.