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Cameron’s India visit sends out the right signals
February 20, 2013, 9:18 am

David Cameron, the British prime minister, arrived in Mumbai on February 18 accompanied by a 100-strong business delegation and four cabinet colleagues.

It was his second official visit to India in two-and-a-half years, and was billed the strongest politico-economic delegation ever led by a British leader.

Ironically, Mumbai-based Ratan Tata, whose twin UK acquisitions Jaguar Land Rover and Arcelor Steel symbolised successful inter-dependence, had voluntarily retired months earlier. The focus that PM Cameron wished to bring to India-UK relations was reflected in the choice of his cabinet colleagues who covered the academic, energy, trade and foreign affairs sectors.

But the visit began with two handicaps. The Augusta Westland deal, through which India was to purchase 12 AW 101 helicopters for $748 million, had just gotten mired in serious charges of corruption, leading to the arrest of top officials of the Italian branch of the British joint venture.

Cameron finessed it by declaring that UK will extend all help with investigation and prosecution.

Secondly, the PM was arriving just as the French President Francois Hollande wrapped up his successful India trip two days earlier.

While in many areas there is no conflict between France and UK, in the defence field the $14.92 billion deal for the supply of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) had been tentatively bagged by the French company Dassault for their Rafale plane.

The other major contender was Eurofighter made by a consortium that includes the UK, which Cameron was hoping to push during the visit. But the helicopter bribe allegations shifted the focus of the defence cooperation discussion.

Different contours of cooperation

The bilateral discussions were held in New Delhi on February 19, preceding a lunch hosted by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at the Hyderabad House, the palatial residence of the Nizam prior to independence. In their statements to the media, the two leaders spelt out the future contours of cooperation.

Cameron, using a phrase like the one US President Barack Obama employed in 2009 in New Delhi, called for “one of the great partnerships of the 21st century with India.”

His initiatives fell into two categories: trade and consular. In the former he announced a cyber security deal, both to allay concerns in the UK over safety of data handled by Indian call centres and generally increase cooperation due to mounting cyber attacks as a national security challenge.

He also proposed copying the Delhi-Mumbai High-speed Freight Corridor that Japanese collaboration is creating, for a similar focus on the 1000 km Mumbai-Bangalore segment, with the creation of many new world class cities along that salient.

It is expected to draw on British experience in creating garden cities.

Although bilateral trade has grown from $8.9 billion in 2005-6, to $10.68 billion in 2009-10 and then to $12.56 billion in 2010-11, the UK’s share in India’s global trade stood at a mere 2.04 per cent in 2010-11. As a result, trade needs to be stepped-up; but more importantly, the UK should direct its energies to Indian infrastructure development.

PM Singh asked for British support for a balanced Free Trade Agreement with Europe. This was incongruous as UK’s own relationship with Europe may be redefined. In fact it could be said that Cameron’s South Asia economic offensive may be to off-set any re-balancing in Europe, particularly were India to finalise its FTA.

In the consular field, Cameron reassured Indian students that there would not be any caps on visas. There was no clarification whether restrictions on employment post-education had been relaxed or not.

The second announcement was regarding same-day granting of visas to bona fide businessmen, rather than the three odd days currently required. This seemed to be calculated to counter the growing impression that the current British government is against immigration.

Local media reports are unanimous in their skepticism about the announcements, the consensus being that a more restrictive immigration policy undercuts the people to people links. PM Cameron, at the British High Commissioner’s reception to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, underscored the strength that the 1.5 million persons of Indian origin in UK bring to bilateral ties.

Cameron also called for India to open its markets, particularly in the field of insurance, banking and retail.

In the latter, the Indian government wrestled with the issue all through the winter session of parliament. British companies like Tesco are naturally keen to rush in once the modalities are clear.

The Indian government has maintained that it is leaving to each of the 28 Indian states to decide to utilise the federal clearance or not. It is possible that this could be challenged by incoming companies as discriminatory or otherwise lead to litigation.

Although not mentioned in public, there are taxation issues concerning two British companies, Vodafone and Shell, which must have been raised in the talks.

Stark differences

There is no stopping the comparisons of the tone and content of the Joint Statements issued after this visit on February 19 and the one at the end of French President Hollande’s visit on February 14. In the field of energy, for instance, Indo-French cooperation in civil nuclear energy is reviewed in great detail.

First is the range of strategic issues outlined in the Indo-French document. For instance, cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy is reviewed in great detail. The status of the first two of the six 1650 MW reactors, to come up at the Jaitapur site, is noted. In the case of UK a civil nuclear agreement is now being mooted. However the British strength in the field of oil and gas gives it a lead, the example being BP’s investment in the Reliance off-shore gas business. Indian clean energy strategy encompasses both nuclear and gas.

On Afghanistan, Cameron – having played host to the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan and privy to some elements of the end-game – shared his assessment of the status of the transition to a post-2014 Afghanistan. The setting-up of a Working Group on Afghanistan is belated recognition that India is a vital regional power with legitimate concerns.

The India-France statement, however, focused at great length on condemning terrorism and restating the need for an Afghan-led process that does not dilute the criteria for reconciliation that the London conference had spelt out.

France, it appears, was sharing Indian concerns, while Cameron merely assured us that even after troop withdrawals, their commitment to Afghanistan would endure.

Meanwhile, Cameron was also careful to call for a stable Pakistan while the French joined India in seeking action against the perpetrators of the 26/11 attack in Mumbai. Obviously, the UK does not have the freedom to articulate on Pakistan-based terror groups that France has, as it has its troops in Afghanistan and thus a stake in an orderly withdrawal.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s visit sent out the right signals. The British government is showing commitment to a relationship with India as it re-assesses its relations with Europe. Both France and the UK support Indian aspirations to be a permanent UN Security Council member as well as to join the four technology control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Australia Group, MTCR etc.

Both are committed to transfer high technology to India and thus help it rise in global competitiveness and energy efficient growth.

The national dailies reflected cautious optimism about Britain-India ties. The Hindustan Times led an editorial with the caption “Some distance to cover.” The Indian Express asked for the two to “seize” the moment for mutual gain. The Hindu’s first page led with “PM seeks Britain’s help in helicopter deal probe.”

PM Cameron’s trip to Amritsar on February 20, before leaving India, had two aims. Paying obeisance at the Golden Temple is a now a staple for leaders from countries with an influential Sikh electorate. His detour to the Jallianwala Bagh, where in 1919 peaceful demonstrators were mowed down by machine gun fire, was to finally bury the colonial past. He is here, as he said, to ‘gaze into the future’. He jocularly said, at the High Commissioner’s reception, that accompanied to a girl’s college by actor Aamir Khan, he discovered that the surest way to be received with shrieks of joy was to have a movie heart-throb by your elbow.

Well, to get to that future in South Asia he would need more than a Mumbai star as he contends with an aggressive France, a resourceful US and a terror addled Pakistan.

Incidentally, Cameron’s visit coincided with Her Majesty the Queen’s birthday. It is a powerful message for a British PM to send that he is on their National Day among people his nation once ruled but now greets as equal partners.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.