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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Modi needs to reciprocate Cameron

Cameron's government has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting the UK this week. This visit is hugely anticipated in the UK, with the British government going all out to make it a success. It comes just days after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which has been seen as one of the most significant shifts in British foreign policy in decades. Britain has positioned itself as a key partner of China in Europe. Modi’s visit is expected to set new benchmarks in India-UK ties as it will be the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the UK in around a decade.

Disenchanted with its special relationship with the US and disillusioned with the overly bureaucratic European Union (EU), the UK is now looking to Asia to develop new partnerships. The aim is to use Asia’s economic dynamism to help its status as a major global economy. The David Cameron government has decided to inject a “new commercialism" into the work of the foreign office and it has been explicit about the use of the foreign office to drum up business for the UK, using its extensive diplomatic network to lift the economy.

The Conservatives have been clear about India being a priority for the UK since Cameron’s visit to India in 2006 as the leader of the opposition. Cameron had written fondly of India before his visit: “India is the world’s largest democracy, a rapidly growing economy, a huge potential trading partner, a diverse society with a strong culture of pluralism and a key regional player—a force for stability in a troubled part of the world." He had suggested that though Britain’s relationship with India “goes deep", it “should go deeper".

India and the UK had forged a “strategic partnership" during former British prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005 but it remained a partnership only in name. The Conservatives are keen on imparting it a new momentum. The UK is the largest European investor in India, and India is the second largest investor in the UK. Indian students are the second largest group in Britain. There are significant historical, linguistic and cultural ties that remain untapped. But the Labour government’s legacy for India is very complex and Cameron’s government needed great diplomatic finesse to manage the challenges.

This was particularly true of the issue of Kashmir, where the Labour government could not help but irritate New Delhi. As late as 2009, former foreign secretary David Miliband was hectoring the Indian government that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is essential to solving the problem of extremism in South Asia. In so doing, Miliband revealed not only his fundamental ignorance about regional issues, but in one stroke damaged potential governmental ties with India.

Granted, Indians tend to overreact whenever there is even an indication of any outside interest on the issue of Kashmir, but Miliband’s ill-informed pronouncements and complete lack of sensitivity to Indian concerns raised some fundamental questions in New Delhi about the trajectory of British foreign policy. Miliband was merely trying to assuage the concerns of the Labour Party’s domestic constituents, in particular Pakistani Muslims who form the largest share of British Muslims. But such an approach has left an indelible mark on the Indian psyche of Britain being on the side of Pakistan on this most crucial of issues.

Cameron’s government made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the subcontinent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. Cameron made all the right noises in India during his first trip as prime minister in 2010. Cameron warned Pakistan against promoting any “export of terror", whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to “look both ways".

He has proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain, like India, is determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in the UK. Despite causing a diplomatic row with Pakistan and Miliband calling him a “loudmouth", Cameron stuck to his comments. More significantly, the British prime minister also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute.

Cameron has championed Indian interests as few British prime ministers have in recent years. Though the rise of India as an economic power is transforming British attitudes towards India across the political spectrum, the opposition Labour Party continues to see India through the lens of human rights, and the impact of its Pakistani immigrant support base remains strong. So, a robust partnership with the Tory government is a good idea for India. In this new phase of India-UK ties, economics and trade are likely to dominate. Cameron has managed to change Indian perceptions about Britain to a considerable extent. It is now Modi’s turn to return the favour.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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