In his third visit to India as Prime Minister, David Cameron is expected to hold talks with his counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday on trade expansion as well as bilateral and regional concerns.
While a Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement said Mr. Cameron’s “unprecedented third visit” is a demonstration of the strength of the bilateral relationship, the visit is being seen as politically significant for the issues that Mr. Cameron is likely to raise, and for his decision to visit Kolkata in the short time that he is there.
During his two-day visit, Mr Cameron is expected to address some of the irritants that have emerged in bilateral ties since he visited India this January. One of these is the impending decision on whether or not Vodafone owes $2 billion in taxes relating to its 2007 takeover of the Indian operations of Hutchison Whampoa. Mr. Cameron is likely to raise this issue.
Another relates to the immigration controls that his government has introduced. Although he visits after the withdrawal of a proposal to introduce a £3000 visa bond for tourists who are on 6-month tourist visa — a move that provoked an angry backlash in the affected countries and amongst immigrant communities here — Mr. Cameron will have to assuage fears over the impact of Home Secretary Theresa May’s tough new policies on immigration. Two recent amendments to the Immigration Bill will make it even more difficult for Indian students to study in the UK.
The Conservative government’s unfriendly immigration policies are seen as the main reason for the fall this year by almost 10,000 overseas Indian students — a constituency Mr. Cameron is ever keen to attract, and which he speaks to directly whenever he visits India.
Alluding to the “multiple and over-lapping reasons for Mr. Cameron to visit India,” Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow at the international policy think tank Chatham House, put the visa issue at the top. “The timing of the announcement that the visa bond is to be scrapped would seem to be linked to the visit. It’s also increasingly obvious that there is a major problem here that threatens to impede positive progress elsewhere, with falling numbers of Indian students to the U.K., for instance.”
The Indian Prime Minister’s boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, and its implications for the Commonwealth and the south Asia region, are likely to be raised. Mr. Cameron is attending CHOGM in the face of considerable opposition, including from a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which urged him to boycott the meeting because of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
For his efforts in nurturing business ties and improving the environment for British and Indian investment and trade to grow, Mr Cameron can claim considerable success.
U.K. exports are up by 25 per cent in 2013, while Indian exports to the U.K. have increased by 10 per cent. The U.K. is India’s European investor, and more Indian investment comes to the U.K. than the whole of the European Union combined. There are 900 Indian companies registered in the U.K. With 45,000 employees, Tata’s is the largest manufacturing employer in the U.K.
Though a visit to Gujarat and Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has now found favour with the British political establishment after a long freeze, is not on the cards, the unexpected visit of Mr. Cameron has evoked interest. According to Dr. Price, this may be to explore business opportunities outside the main centres, but has also been interpreted “correctly or incorrectly, through a political prism relating to the possible outcome of the next general election, and the possibly greater role for regional politicians,” he said.