Navigating the tricky passage to India

In his bid to drum up business for the U.K., Cameron has made all the right noises on issues critical to India

February 22, 2013 12:43 am | Updated February 26, 2013 04:21 pm IST

Underscoring India’s importance in Britain’s evolving foreign policy priorities, British Prime Minister David Cameron was in India this week for a second time since assuming office in 2010. Though his visit to Jallianwala Bagh has evoked mixed reactions in India, he became the first serving British Prime Minister to pay his respects at the site, describing the massacre as “a deeply shameful event in British history”. He may well have done this for domestic political consumption. Nonetheless, its symbolic importance should not be underestimated. Mr. Cameron is trying to take U.K.-India ties to a new level of maturity and India would do well to respond adequately.

Economic relations were the focus of this visit. Accompanying the British Prime Minister was a large business delegation from the U.K. Mr. Cameron emphasised that both New Delhi and London should remove barriers to cooperation and make it easier to invest in each other.

Signalling to Indian investors his government’s seriousness about the U.K.-India ‘special relationship’, Mr. Cameron has decided to introduce a same-day visa service for Indian businesses waiting to invest in the U.K. He also suggested that there is no limit to the number of Indian students who can study at British universities, and to the number that could stay on and work.

Seeking partnerships

Disenchanted with its special relationship with the U.S. and disillusioned with the overly bureaucratic EU, Britain is now looking to Asia to develop new partnerships. The aim is to use Asia’s economic dynamism to help Britain’s status as a major global economy. The government has decided to inject a “new commercialism” into the work of the Foreign Office. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been explicit about the use of Foreign Office to drum up business for Britain, using the country’s extensive diplomatic network to lift its economy.

The Conservatives have been clear about India being a priority for the U.K. since Mr. Cameron’s visit to India in 2006 as the leader of the opposition. Mr. Cameron had written fondly of India before his visit: “India is the world’s largest democracy, a rapidly growing economy, a huge potential trading partner, a diverse society with a strong culture of pluralism and a key regional player — a force for stability in a troubled part of the world.” He had suggested that though Britain’s relationship with India “goes deep”, it “should go deeper”.

India and Britain had forged a ‘strategic partnership’ during former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005 but it remained a partnership only in name. The Conservatives were keen on giving it a new momentum. The U.K. is the largest European investor in India and India is the second largest investor in the U.K. Indian students are the second largest group in Britain. There are significant historical, linguistic and cultural ties that remain untapped.

But the Labour government’s India legacy was very complex and Mr. Cameron’s government needed great diplomatic finesse to manage the challenges. This was particularly true of the issue of Kashmir where the Labour government could not help but irritate New Delhi. As late as 2009, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband was hectoring India that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute was essential to ending extremism in South Asia.

Traditional approach dropped

Mr. Cameron’s government made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the subcontinent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. Mr. Cameron made all the right noises in India during his first trip in 2010. He warned Pakistan against promoting any “export of terror”, whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to “look both ways”. He has proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain, like India, was determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lashkar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain. Despite causing a diplomatic row with Pakistan and David Miliband calling him “loudmouth”, Mr. Cameron stuck to his comments.

More significantly, the British Prime Minister also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute.

In this new phase of India-U.K. ties, economics and trade are likely to dominate. Mr. Cameron has managed to change Indian perceptions about Britain to a considerable extent. If even after this the U.K.-India ties fail to take off, it won’t be for lack of trying by the British Prime Minister.

(Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.)

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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