The visit of Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom to¬†India in the immediate footsteps of French President Fran√ßois 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
¬†(The views expressed in this column are the writer‚Äôs own)