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Some distance to cover

David Cameron’s trip will strengthen ties between India and Britain but there are some limiting factors too.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2013 21:23 IST

The best summary of the past relationship between Britain and India is that the children of the latter learn about the former largely through Enid Blyton — an author who described a Britain that has not existed for over a half century. The past several years have been about the redefinition of this bilateral relationship to reflect a new economic and political context. The heart of this change is the new Indian economy and a different British economy.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s two visits to India have rightly been almost solely about trade and investment. India’s strongest and most substantive relationship with Britain today is that of investment — as much Indian investment in Britain as the flow of capital in the other direction. As is often mentioned, the Tata Group is now the largest manufacturing employer in Britain. Encouraging this economic binding is non-controversial. As important is the environment for entrepreneurship and finance that Indian business both needs and that New Delhi should emulate.

There is little in the relationship that would be considered strategic or security conscious. India and Britain have not been on the same page on the western military withdrawal of Afghanistan. This is largely because Britain should be seen as a European nation with a similar post-modern outlook on conflict and with minimal international security interests. It is a mistake to see Britain as a small version of the United States. However, what is unfortunate is the British decision to slowly but surely sever the migration link that has been such a strong part of the relationship. Allowing students and businessmen to come for temporary periods of time is a subset of economic relations. The experience of the Indo-US relationship has been that the presence of a strong immigrant relationship means a much deeper and more integrated interlinkage than merely trade, investment and cricket. The British political system has preferred to let that possibility slide.

It remains first among equals for Indians in Europe, but will in time not hold that status for Indians in the larger world.