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The visit of Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom to India in the immediate footsteps of French President François Hollande generated less excitement. Part of it was certainly the more glamorous recent French sales of high-tech weaponry and nuclear reactors, but there was the palpable sense that the South Asia behemoth had outgrown the need for its former colonial master. There are two problems with Britain trying to court India – one is that it has no unique selling point, and the second is that the Tories and Cameron do not seem to have any long-term strategy.

After World War II, Britain was content to play Berthier to the new American Napoleon. As long as the United States remained the economic powerhouse and a military colossus, Britain enjoyed relevance and importance in world affairs. However, the shift of the political centre of gravity from Europe back to Asia after the end of the Cold War and a more fragile US economy has demanded that Britain rediscover itself in the new global order that has many more players  such as Brazil, China, and India at the high table.

So far, Downing Street does not seem to have a clear policy with regard to the new world order. Cameron’s passage to India betrays this inchoate policy. Foreign leaders with dozens of businessmen in tow are a common sight in Indian metropoleis, but Delhi’s recent partnerships have sought more than just trade. Be it with the United States or Japan, France or Australia, South Block has openly shown interest in strategic ties, though in its own understated way.

Britain must ask itself what it can offer India besides trade. Having remained in the shadows of the Untied States for so long, an independent British policy is hard to discern. Though London has supported New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group for an India-specific waiver, it neither took the lead nor did it show the enthusiasm and support evinced from Moscow and Paris. Britain’s secondary role to France, Canada, Russia, and the United States in nuclear commerce, not to mention its unremarkable defence and high-tech industries does not make it an attractive option to India for a strategic partnership.

There is also this to be asked: what motivates Cameron’s India policy? Analysts suggest that domestic concerns have pushed the prime minister’s hand more than strategic considerations. Hemmed in by potential Scottish independence, the Falklands ruffle, and Britain’s relationship with the European Union, a substantial arms deal with India – such as the replacement of the Rafale with the Typhoon in India’s $20 billion MMRCA contract – would show Britain to be an international player of some influence and power in the 21st century. Better relations with India would also better position the Tories to benefit from the inevitable positive upswell among Britain’s large immigrant South Asian minority too.

Unfortunately, Cameron stepped into a minefield even before he embarked on his trip to India – meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf at 10, Downing Street, just days before, Cameron declared, “your friends are our friends, and your enemies are our enemies.” This is unlikely to be taken well in New Delhi, particularly with general elections coming up and a fear of appearing weak on cross-border terrorism. While the statement may be only rhetoric, it is unlikely that Britain has been living under a rock since the 1980s and does not know of the intricate and multitudinous ties Islamabad has with terrorist outfits…which only raises the question again if Downing Street has a clear India or South Asia policy.

None of this is to suggest that India should not have close relations with the United Kingdom. As a developing nation that needs to spend $1 trillion in infrastructure alone over the next decade, the UK has much to offer India in transportation, health, education, environment, finance, and other fields. Close cooperation and coordination on counter-terrorism, piracy, cyber security, and defence is always welcome. Yet a simple trading partner is not a strategic partner, with access to and influence in the innermost circles of Raisina. For that, Downing Street must decide whether it is willing to step out of the United States’ shadow and make an offer New Delhi cannot refuse.

One possible avenue might be a stronger push for India to be a part of the NSG, allowing it to participate in nuclear commerce and not be a mere consumer of the nuclear market. One interesting possibility is a stake in Urenco, perhaps in combination with others such as Areva and GE-Westinghouse. There are many members of the NSG, not to mention the non-proliferation ayatollahs, who’d be aghast at the suggestion, but India has always viewed technology denial regimes poorly. India is already a quasi-member of the nuclear club since the 2008 nuclear treaties, and British support in actualising some of the clauses would generate much good will for it.

Much ink is spilled over Britain’s ties to India – the Commonwealth, cricket, and curry. India, however, has a new generation today, one that does not share those same ties with affection or fondness but remembers Jallianwala Bagh, Bhagat Singh, and the Temple wage. Despite English, there is little to no advantage Britain has over France, Japan, or others; in fact, the converse is truer. What Cameron needs is an extraordinary gesture to show India that the UK can be more than just another trading partner. There is no need for shyness on India’s part either – New Delhi can actively lobby for strategic benefits it sees in ties with Britain than wait for Downing Street to offer it. Despite the recent downturn in India’s ties with Britain, they are not up for debate – the question is only how close each side is comfortable with becoming.


I wish to acknowledge the generous help of Dr. Matthew Ford with this post.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on February 26, 2013.