Angling for India
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Angling for India

As British PM Cameron arrives this week with the goal of taking relations between the two countries to a new high, our London correspondent, Dipankar De Sarkar, take a look at his agenda.

world Updated: Jul 25, 2010 01:38 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in India this week at the head of a power-packed business and political team aimed at taking flourishing and modern ties between the two nations to a new high. But his hosts will look out for signs of what this means for India's interests. Key Points in India-UK Ties

For Britain, clearly, a lot rides on the two-day visit. Who's Who Coming with British PM

Cameron has selected India to be his first major overseas destination since becoming, at 43, the youngest British premier in nearly 200 years. He wants India and Britain to enter into a 'special relationship' — a term that used to describe Britain's ties with the US.

But with the Obama administration busy developing ties with a number of European and Asian countries, Britain too has signalled a Look East policy that is centred around India and China.

Britain's new coalition government is pinning hopes of accelerated domestic economic recovery on the back of India's galloping growth, speaking of a “shared history.” But more than 60 years after independence, where memories of the Raj count for little, the two sides are taking nothing for granted.

Both want trade to grow.

Additionally, Britain is desperate for increased Indian investments in order to help create more jobs in Britain.

What a special relationship means for India is less clear — Britain is already in a strategic partnership with India, but so are many other countries, Indian sources say. Senior British ministers have spoken of offers in civil nuclear energy, education, infrastructure and defence but none of that sounds very 'special' to analysts.

"The fact is that in the last 13 years of the Labour government, there has been a major slide in Britain's economic standing, while India has risen both economically and in its importance globally," said Gareth Price, head of Asia Programme at Chatham House, a London-based world affairs thinktank.

"There has to be something substantive coming out of this visit — time-tables, plans and targets, not just aspirations."

There has been a demand from business leaders on both sides for the British to offer a "game changer" similar in scale to the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear deal, but British ministers and officials have so far refused to divulge the details of what they plan to put on the table.

"We need to find out what India wants," said Hewitt.

Cameron will fan out across India on June 28, visiting Bangalore, Mumbai and possibly some other cities, before converging in New Delhi to meet Manmohan Singh.

"There is already a special relationship because of a shared history," said Mohan Kaul, head of the London-based Commonwealth Business Council. "If Britain does not build on it, it will lose the advantage to other powerful countries — David Cameron certainly feels that way."

The visit comes amid a sudden fall in investments and a slowdown in trade — a decline that Indian and British ministers put down to the global downturn and will try to reverse quickly.

"Britain is late on India but not too late," said G.P. Hinduja, Co-Chairman of the multi-billion dollar Hinduja Group. "The way forward is to combine British high-tech solutions with India's pool of talent and skills."

Immigration is another area of concern: the coalition government is keen to bring down overall numbers of non-European skilled migrants but has heard strong complaints from business leaders from India, the US and southeast Asian countries with investments in Britain.

The immigration crack-down also threatens to hit Britain's cash-starved education sector, heavily reliant on income from foreign students. But on Thursday the government lifted a temporary ban on student visa applications in three centres — Jalandhar, Chandigarh and New Delhi — imposed last year after a sudden surge.

Although Cameron wants to showcase India as an example of commercial diplomacy, some analysts think there should be an equally strong focus on their strategic partnership — citing the future of Afghanistan in particular.

"David Cameron needs to work towards assuring India that our approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan will have India's interest at heart," said Vikas Pota, head of Saffron Chase, a leading India-focussed government and business PR agency. "If there's a game-changer, then this is it."

First Published: Jul 24, 2010 22:47 IST