British prime minister Boris Johnson, fresh off an overnight flight from London, was pictured on Thursday in Gujarat, posing with a charkha at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The image is rich with irony.

The 10 Downing Street incumbent styles himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill, a man whose hatred of Mahatma Gandhi, the ashram’s founder and most famous resident, is richly recorded.

Johnson wrote a biography of the United Kingdom’s truculent, cigar-chomping, war-time prime minister so he cannot be unaware of his predecessor’s antipathy to the man he demeaned as “a seditious [Inner] Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace”.

Johnson sat, fully clothed, sweltering in a dark suit as he masqueraded for the pack of press photographers eagerly covering the first of his two days in India.

In the visitors book, Johnson scribbled, “It is an immense privilege to come to the ashram of this extraordinary man and to understand how he mobilised such simple principles of truth and non-violence to change the world for the better.”

The irony here is that the United Kingdom’s top politician himself has a rather tenuous relationship with the truth. He has been sacked several times for lying.

Later on Thursday, Johnson was photographed with the saffron sadhus of the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Gandhinagar with a tilak on his forehead. At the same time, almost 7,000 km away in the Palace of Westminster, his fellow parliamentarians were voting to have him investigated, or impeached as the Americans would say, for having misled Members of Parliament – a synonym for lying to Parliament.

Boris Johnson at the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar on Thursday. Credit: Reuters

His current problems, dubbed “Partygate”, stem from having broken the strict pandemic laws that forbade people meeting and socialising during lockdown and which millions of British people adhered to at great personal cost. Politicians of the ruling party, it transpired, gathered and disobeyed the rules they had imposed upon the population.

Misdemeanours included the shipping in of alcohol wheeled into government offices in suitcases. He has already been fined by the Metropolitan Police and Westminster observers sense more fines are to come. His rule-breaking proven, the parliamentary investigation will judge whether he also lied about it to Parliament.

His premiership is in jeopardy. The whole saga is the antithesis of the abstinence, sacrifice and moral leadership that underpinned Gandhi’s message and life.

A war in Ukraine has been timely for Prime Minister Johnson. It has distracted his detractors briefly and provided him the opportunity to burnish his Churchillian demeanour by walking side-by-side with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the streets of Kyiv.

Full of rhetoric against Russian President Vladimir Putin at home, Johnson knows that India’s relationship with Russia is different and deeply rooted.

There are many back in his home country who feel the much-touted free trade agreement, currently being negotiated between the two countries, should be off the table until India falls in line with the regime of sanctions by the West. India’s willingness to buy cheap hydrocarbons from Russia is a deal-breaker they say. But Johnson’s options are limited.

What a difference a decade makes.

When Johnson was in India on official business in 2012, he was an ardent European. In his then role as mayor of London he was a special guest at a “Boris breakfast” hosted at the Taj Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai.

He arrived dishevelled from what he euphemistically termed a “rather detailed evening” spent either with his former wife Mariana Wheeler’s Sikh cousins (her mother was Punjabi), or the England cricket team, which also happened to be in town – and in winning ways. He went into bat for London as a gateway to the half billion wealthy residents of Europe.

It was a strong performance. Indian companies liked it, and plenty established overseas headquarters in London. Some so-called bad boy billionaires are still there while the Indian government seeks their return to India to face charges.

Now, with “Brexit done”, the slogan popularly used by the Conservative Party, and the United Kingdom divorced from its largest trading partner and nearest neighbour, Johnson needs to find other trade deals. Two rounds of talks have taken place on a United Kingdom-India free trade agreement. There is optimism in some quarters that there can be a deal by 2023.

But whereas 10 years ago the United Kingdom held some trump cards – frictionless access to Europe being one – its hand is much weaker now. The United Kingdom appears to come now, cap in hand, with little to offer.

This trip comes with the announcement of $1billion of supposedly new investments between the two countries and hints of a newfound willingness to give way on one of India’s biggest demands – the relaxation on visas for Indian workers.

The realpolitik is that the United Kingdom needs trade with India now much more than India needs the United Kingdom. The flood of international visitors to New Delhi in recent weeks and the leverage this gives Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest that the tables have turned. The irony. Or karma, perhaps?

Mark Hannant is an entrepreneur, map collector, and the author of Midnight’s Grandchildren: How Young Indians are Disrupting the World’s Largest Democracy. He lives in Mumbai.

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