Doing business with friends, especially old friends, can be an awkward affair. Much is taken for granted, and yet, when one looks at the table, banter and bonhomie aside, there can be very little on the table. On his first prime ministerial visit to India, Britain’s David Cameron understands that and has pulled out all the stops to ‘do business’ with India. But he has one big disadvantage: he comes without a ‘big ticket item’ to sell. Instead, not unlike a real estate agent selling the idea of a yet-to-be-constructed apartment block, Mr Cameron will be making a pitch for something more substantial that is yet to come. On top of that is Britain’s challenge of working up a charm offensive in an atmosphere where the island nation needs India more than India needs the island nation.
Mr Cameron should be healthily wary of mistaking a smile and a handshake for a memorandum of understanding — a traditional ailment that India had long suffered. By going to Bangalore first with a posse of businessmen more keen on setting up key stalls in a hyper-competitive market than on strengthening ‘deep cultural ties’, the prime minister has shown pragmatism. One key area where the two countries need to sign on the dotted line at some stage in the future would be education — and one is not talking Oxbridge and spoken English here, but technical education. India’s proverbial ‘demographic dividend’ faces an obstacle in the form of quality education and, even though an increasing number of Indians are moving to other parts of the world to pick up skill sets and use them at home and abroad, Britain can play a big role in this domain once our Parliament decides to give the green signal for foreign educational institutions setting up shop in India. One can guess that Mr Cameron’s talk of India having a ‘say’ in his government’s policy to cap immigration in Britain is dovetailed to a demand for skilled labour in his country.
On the geopolitical front, matters are far trickier. New Delhi may have ‘needed’ Britain during the ‘non-aligned’ years to try and find a toehold on the world stage and reach out to developed economies. With India shuffling closer to the US, especially after the embrace of George W. Bush’s India-US nuclear deal, London is become peripheral to New Delhi’s goals. But as in the commercial field, India-Britain policy ties were auto-piloting during the Blair-Brown years. For Mr Cameron, it’s catch-up time. For India, it’s an opportunity to find what an old friend can bring to the table.