The visit of Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom toÂ India in the immediate footsteps of French President FranĂ§ois HollandeÂ generated less excitement. Part of it was certainly the more glamorousÂ recent French sales of high-tech weaponry and nuclear reactors, butÂ there was the palpable sense that the South Asia behemoth had outgrownÂ the need for its former colonial master. There are two problems withÂ Britain trying to court India – one is that it has no unique sellingÂ point, and the second is that the Tories and Cameron do not seem toÂ have any long-term strategy.
After World War II, Britain was content to play Berthier to the newÂ American Napoleon. As long as the United States remained the economicÂ powerhouse and a military colossus, Britain enjoyed relevance andÂ importance in world affairs. However, the shift of the politicalÂ centre of gravity from Europe back to Asia after the end of the ColdÂ War and a more fragile US economy has demanded that Britain rediscoverÂ itself in the new global order that has many more players such asÂ Brazil, China, and India at the high table.
So far, Downing Street does not seem to have a clear policy withÂ regard to the new world order. Cameron’s passage to India betrays thisÂ inchoate policy. Foreign leaders with dozens of businessmen in tow areÂ a common sight in Indian metropoleis, but Delhi’s recent partnershipsÂ have sought more than just trade. Be it with the United States orÂ Japan, France or Australia, South Block has openly shown interest inÂ strategic ties, though in its own understated way.
Britain must ask itself what it can offer India besides trade. HavingÂ remained in the shadows of the Untied States for so long, anÂ independent British policy is hard to discern. Though London hasÂ supported New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat at the United NationsÂ Security Council and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group for anÂ India-specific waiver, it neither took the lead nor did it show theÂ enthusiasm and support evinced from Moscow and Paris. Britain’sÂ secondary role to France, Canada, Russia, and the United States inÂ nuclear commerce, not to mention its unremarkable defence andÂ high-tech industries does not make it an attractive option to IndiaÂ for a strategic partnership.
There is also this to be asked: what motivates Cameron’s India policy?Â Analysts suggest that domestic concerns have pushed the primeÂ minister’s hand more than strategic considerations. Hemmed in byÂ potential Scottish independence, the Falklands ruffle, and Britain’sÂ relationship with the European Union, a substantial arms deal withÂ India – such as the replacement of the Rafale with the Typhoon inÂ India’s $20 billion MMRCA Â contract – would show Britain to be anÂ international player of some influence and power in the 21st century.Â Better relations with India would also better position the Tories toÂ benefit from the inevitable positive upswell among Britain’s largeÂ immigrant South Asian minority too.
Unfortunately, Cameron stepped into a minefield even before heÂ embarked on his trip to India – meeting with Pakistani Prime MinisterÂ Raja Pervez Ashraf at 10, Downing Street, just days before, CameronÂ declared, “your friends are our friends, and your enemies are ourÂ enemies.” This is unlikely to be taken well in New Delhi, particularlyÂ with general elections coming up and a fear of appearing weak onÂ cross-border terrorism. While the statement may be only rhetoric, itÂ is unlikely that Britain has been living under a rock since the 1980sÂ and does not know of the intricate and multitudinous ties IslamabadÂ has with terrorist outfits…which only raises the question again ifÂ Downing Street has a clear India or South Asia policy.
None of this is to suggest that India should not have close relationsÂ with the United Kingdom. As a developing nation that needs to spend $1Â trillion in infrastructure alone over the next decade, the UK has muchÂ to offer India in transportation, health, education, environment,Â finance, and other fields. Close cooperation and coordination onÂ counter-terrorism, piracy, cyber security, and defence is alwaysÂ welcome. Yet a simple trading partner is not a strategic partner, withÂ access to and influence in the innermost circles of Raisina. For that,Â Downing Street must decide whether it is willing to step out of theÂ 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 ofÂ the NSG, allowing it to participate in nuclear commerce and not be aÂ mere consumer of the nuclear market. One interesting possibility is aÂ stake in Urenco, perhaps in combination with others such as Areva andÂ GE-Westinghouse. There are many members of the NSG, not to mention theÂ non-proliferation ayatollahs, who’d be aghast at the suggestion, butÂ India has always viewed technology denial regimes poorly. India isÂ already a quasi-member of the nuclear club since the 2008 nuclearÂ treaties, and British support in actualising some of the clauses wouldÂ generate much good will for it.
Much ink is spilled over Britain’s ties to India – the Commonwealth,Â cricket, and curry. India, however, has a new generation today, oneÂ that does not share those same ties with affection or fondness butÂ remembers Jallianwala Bagh, Bhagat Singh, and the Temple wage. DespiteÂ English, there is little to no advantage Britain has over France,Â Japan, or others; in fact, the converse is truer. What Cameron needsÂ is an extraordinary gesture to show India that the UK can be more thanÂ just another trading partner. There is no need for shyness on India’sÂ part either – New Delhi can actively lobby for strategic benefits itÂ sees in ties with Britain than wait for Downing Street to offer it.Â Despite the recent downturn in India’s ties with Britain, they are notÂ up for debate – the question is only how close each side isÂ comfortable with becoming.
I wish to acknowledge the generous help of Dr. Matthew Ford with this post
Â (The views expressed in this column are the writerâs own)