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India-Britain ties, mind the gap

David Cameron’s charm offensive is logical. But are Britons interested in closer ties with India? asks Nik Gowing.

india Updated: Jul 28, 2010 23:40 IST

David Cameron’s over-the-horizon strategic thinking on India is viewed as both visionary and consistent. India was the first country he visited after becoming Conservative leader in Britain in 2006. He appreciated then what many were still reluctant to embrace: global power was shifting fundamentally away from the dominance of the developed, industrialised West.

“India, one of the great civilisations of the world, is truly great again,” he wrote four years ago. “So this is India’s time. For most of the past half century, we in the West have assumed that we set the pace and we set the global agenda. Well, now we must wake up to a new reality. We have to share global leadership with India, and with China.”

Cameron’s appreciation then is British government policy now.

The Conservative election manifesto three months ago also found space to promise specifically establishing “a new special relationship” with India. That commitment had a place among the bleak policy options for a Britain that confronted having to take severe measures to pull itself out of recession and massive debt.

Less than three weeks after the British election in May, Queen Elizabeth read to the State opening of her new parliament in Westminster this single, sharp line

that confirmed the policy of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government: “My government looks forward to an enhanced partnership with India.”

So two Cameron phrases: “Special relationship” and “Enhanced partnership”. Special? Enhanced? What might the difference be? The political commitment for new British relations with India in those four words must now find shape and direction that can somehow secure achievement. There is not much time to achieve it. Neither is there great clarity on what form it will take.

Like Cameron’s intriguing but shapeless British election promise of a new ‘Big Society’ earlier this year, there is now an overarching expectation for India. But an achievable ambition and meaning must now be defined for those two alluring phrases. Both in Britain and here in India, official and unofficial sources give 10 Downing Street’s ambitions a fair wind. Yet there is also diplomatic head-scratching, plus an understandable caution laced with scepticism.

In London the current Britain-India relationship is one of ‘under-achievement’ that has gone off the boil, partly because of the negative legacy left by the previous Labour government over Kashmir and diplomatic style. It is like a “long-standing marriage where there is a need to inject more excitement and ambition”. The aspiration must be a “newer and even deeper relationship”.

In Delhi, I have heard warm official appreciation for Britain from senior political voices like those of the Union Transport and Highways Minister Kamal Nath, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Even with the new cacophony of fast-growing international attention from the US, Russia, France, Japan, Canada and many other countries, they volunteered to me that Britain still has a ‘special’ place. And it is nothing to do with being the ex-colonial power. I have heard under 30s here describe how Britain now has ‘special’ resonance with India’s next generation for a host of reasons. But that is not apparently matched in Britain.

Cameron’s India focus seven days after visiting President Barack Obama in the White House is not bringing with him even a measurable minority of Brits. The leading think-tank, Chatham House, is undertaking an ongoing appraisal of Britain’s new place in the world. It commissioned polling on the host of foreign policy initiatives from the new coalition government. Despite the Cameron determination, it discovered apparent indifference on India. The British public is not that interested.

In two separate British samples of both the general public and elite ‘movers and shakers’, the idea of an ‘enhanced partnership’ with India found little interest. YouGov concluded two weeks ago: “The poll shows ambivalence from the general public, with a low score in both positive and negative perceptions of the country.” But Cameron wants his initiative of bringing senior ministers and 90 leading businessmen with him to fan out to several leading Indian cities to start what must be a long, determined re-asserting of a new British relationship with India.

As one diplomatic source said, two days will only lay a foundation stone here. Meanwhile, the imagination back home of a British public coming to terms with the new realities of economic austerity will somehow have to be fired up. Britain must sustain its new efforts for India in parallel with many other nations. It, too, recognises its vital need to adjust and realign itself with India’s new economic and political power.

The simultaneous red carpet treatment given by India this week for a five-day State visit by the reclusive leader of Burma’s junta General Than Shwe underscores the variety of foreign policy priorities for India. Within weeks, Presidents Obama, Medvedev and Sarkozy will be here. Like Cameron, each will reinforce the US, Russian and French claims for a new place in India’s attentions. The British challenge is to ensure Delhi remembers London’s calling card, along with the hopes and promises.

Why? Because other leaders will be leaving their own cards just as loudly and hopefully. And they will do it not long after the Cameron entourage has boarded its British Airways jumbo jet within sight of Indira Gandhi International’s sparkling, newly- opened Terminal 3, and returned home.

Nik Gowing is Presenter, The Hub, BBC World News.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 28, 2010 23:39 IST