Boris Johnson has said he hopes to broker a post-Brexit free trade deal with India “by the autumn” in an apparent hastening of his ambition.
The Prime Minister has indicated a deal will include accepting Delhi’s demands for an increase in migration to the UK, ahead of meeting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.
Mr Johnson had earlier put his target for a deal at the end of the year but appeared to shorten the timeframe during an interview in Gujarat, on the first day of his two-day visit to India.
Ahead of meeting Mr Modi on Thursday, the Prime Minister told broadcasters: “We’re hoping to complete another free trade agreement, with India, by the end of the year, by the autumn.”
Mr Johnson has vowed to press Mr Modi for a reduction of fossil fuels from Vladimir Putin’s Russia during talks in Delhi, amid concerns he has not been critical enough of the invasion of Ukraine.
But the PM was facing renewed calls in India to speak up for minorities and democratic rights as he visited a JCB factory, while bulldozers are being used to tear down Muslim-owned properties in communal violence.
He indicated he would bring up those issues during talks with Mr Modi, who is accused of damaging India’s democracy and of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Prime Minister said: “We always raise the difficult issues, of course we do, but the fact is that India is a country of 1.35 billion people and it is democratic, it’s the world’s largest democracy.”
He was speaking after posing for pictures in a JCB bulldozer after being shown around the new plant by owner Lord Bamford, who is a major Tory donor.
The Prime Minister flew to and from the JCB factory in an Indian air force Chinook, and was allowed to sit in the cockpit on the way back.
Mr Johnson’s diplomatic dash in India comes amid the fallout after he was fined for breaching coronavirus laws with a gathering for his 56th birthday in 2020.
While he is out of the country, MPs will vote on Thursday on whether to open a Commons investigation into whether he lied to Parliament.
Downing Street had not expressed confidence that a trade deal with India would be brokered this year, saying “we don’t want to sacrifice quality for speed”.
And in an interview with journalists flying with him to Gujarat, Mr Johnson said the aim was to get a free trade deal “by the end of year”, before bringing the ambition forward.
“On immigration I’ve always been in favour of talented people coming to this country,” he added. “We have a massive shortage in the UK, not least in IT, in programmers, we’re short to the tune of hundreds of thousands in our economy.
“We need to have a progressive approach, and we will. But it’s got to be controlled.”
Mr Johnson was determined to push on with the trip despite the Commons vote and slowly increasing calls from his own Tory MPs for his resignation.
His plans to visit India have twice been cancelled, first over the UK’s winter wave of Covid infections and then in April last year in response to a new variant hitting India.