'Humble' Cameron makes a fresh start with India

30th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

The rules of engagement for the top-level delegation British Prime Minister David Cameron brought to India were clear: Be humble, keep looking forward and, whatever you do, don't mention Kashmir.

For a short visit, just two days, it had lofty ambitions of rejuvenating and redefining a historical relationship that had drifted towards indifference, and analysts Friday suggested the effort had, for the most part, paid off.

The unprecedented size and profile of the delegation, which included a sizeable chunk of Cameron's senior cabinet and a small army of top business leaders, was a statement of intent that was not lost on its hosts.

The underlying tone of the visit, aimed at pitching for investment and increased trade to create jobs and boost Britain's post-recession recovery, was set in a piece Cameron wrote for The Hindu newspaper in advance of his visit.

"I have come to your country in a spirit of humility," wrote the Conservative leader, who came to power in May. "I know that Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India's future."

Such self-effacement appeared aimed at distancing Cameron from a series of past visits by top British politicians that had prompted Indian complaints of being "lectured to" by the former colonial ruler.

In 1997, then foreign minister Robin Cook infuriated his hosts by suggesting that Britain could mediate in India's long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.

And last year, then foreign minister David Miliband ignited a diplomatic furore when he linked the 2008 Mumbai attacks to the lack of a solution in Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the divided Muslim-majority region and New Delhi is staunchly opposed to any third-party interference.

"There is a strong feeling in India that in the past British leaders have talked down to us," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to Britain.

"This time, I think Cameron got the tone absolutely right," Mansingh said.

Cameron's unexpectedly blunt warning to India's arch-rival Pakistan about promoting "the export of terror" also played well, while eliciting an angry response from Islamabad.

Whether there was any real substance to back up the charm offensive was more open to question.

A decade ago, Britain was India's third largest trade partner. Now it doesn't even make the top 10 and, in its new drive to court one of the world's fastest-growing economies, faces stiff competition from wealthier rival suitors like the United States and Japan.

"The fact is that Britain needs India much more than India needs Britain," said political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

An editorial in the Hindustan Times noted that for all his talk of British expertise in finance, education, research and military technology, Cameron was unable to bring a "big-ticket item" to the trade table with India.

"Instead, not unlike a real estate agent selling the idea of a yet-to-be-constructed apartment block, Cameron made a pitch for something more substantial that is yet to come," the Times said.

The only major deal signed during the visit was for BAE Systems to sell 57 Hawk trainer jets to India at a cost of around 780 million dollars.

And Cameron also failed to allay concerns over his government's proposed cap on non-EU immigration, which Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has warned will have an adverse effect on trade relations.

But R.K. Jain, a professor of European Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, argued that it was unrealistic to expect too much from just one visit.

"Cameron wanted to make a strong pitch, and he did that. The primary thrust was economic and that is going to be the main definer of future relations," Jain said.

The Times of India agreed, saying Cameron had made "the right moves" and noting that he had "avoided the Kashmir trap this time".

"New Delhi has recast its relationship with Washington over the past decade. It should now proceed to do the same with London," the newspaper said.

© 2010 AFP

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