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Picture 1 Alex Hickman worked for David Cameron as a foreign affairs advisor in 2006/7, and organised David Cameron and George Osborne’s visit to India in 2006.  He was previously Chief Executive of the cross-party ‘no’ campaign opposing UK membership of the euro; and Open Europe, the independent think-tank on the future of the EU. He conclues here that unlocking a strategic relationship with India won’t be easy, and David Cameron’s salesmanship will be sorely tested, but that the prize is worth the fight.

This week the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers, including George Osborne, William Hague and Vince Cable, will lead a delegation of business leaders across India in an unprecedented attempt to transform one of Britain’s most important bilateral relationships.

David Cameron has been to India before.  In September 2006 he visited Pune, Mumbai and Delhi on his first official trip as Conservative Leader, pledging to build a ‘special relationship’ with Britain’s former colony.  The five day trip holds happy memories: he and the Chancellor, then both new to the international scene, impressed their hosts, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Ratan Tata.  On the eve of their departure to the airport, while the party chatted in the drawing room of the High Commissioner’s Residence, thousands of miles away New Labour finally imploded.  Tony Blair, the biggest obstacle to a Conservative election victory, had unexpectedly announced he would step down during a routine visit to a London school.  As the news came through an elated Cameron clapped Osborne and Steve Hilton on the back.  Gordon Brown would soon be in Number Ten, and Cameron knew he could beat him.  

This time the Prime Minister will have to make his own luck.  The air space over Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport has become crowded with world leaders in search of a strategic dialogue with the world’s largest democracy.  “I firmly believe that the relationship between the United States and India will be a defining partnership in the 21st century," President Obama announced in June; one third of his cabinet has already visited India and he is expected in Delhi in November. 

“We should bolster our relationship not as an end in itself, but with a real sense of purpose" declared EU High Representative Catherine Ashton as she prepares for the 11th EU-India summit in October.  Australia, a key Indian Ocean power, has strengthened its diplomatic presence, prompting Prime Minister Singh to declare an upgrade in relations “to the level of a strategic partnership”.  Keen to manage expectations in the face of stiff competition, Number Ten now wisely talks about achieving an ‘enhanced partnership’ with India. 

The reality is that our relative importance to Delhi is declining.  The UK is now India’s 13th largest trading partner with 2.6% of India’s trade, down from 3.7% five years ago.  We are still the 4th largest cumulative investor into India with $8.3 billion of FDI, but our share of FDI has declined in every year of the past 5 according to Government of India (GoI) records.  India’s young population is drawn culturally to the US; those that can choose now study at universities in America, not the UK.

In his first speech as Foreign Secretary, William Hague lamented New Labour’s “ad hoc and patchy” approach to the developing world.  Look no further than India.  Labour’s myopic ethical foreign policy, and the party’s influential Muslim (and pro-Pakistan) lobby led to clumsy handling of the unresolved dispute in Kashmir, which the GoI is acutely sensitive about.  Nonetheless, Blair was a welcome visitor until the Iraq War turned him into America’s roving recruiting sergeant.  Delhi, its diplomacy rooted in multilateralism and pacifism, and with a finely balanced network of relationships across the Middle East, declined to sign-up. 

Last year, on a visit billed as an ‘act of solidarity’, David Milliband caused deep offence by linking the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai with Kashmir.  He compounded the offence by treating his hosts with Islingtonian familiarity, a schoolboy error in a political culture which remains highly formal.  By the end of the visit GoI sources were describing their VIP guest as an ill-informed and disrespectful young man who “did not come across as the foreign minister of a friendly nation.”

So Cameron has the one-off advantage of a fresh start.  Taking personal responsibility for the relationship sends a strong signal.  John Major was popular because he shared with his Indian counterpart’s time, dialogue, and a passion for cricket.  In India, where the often tortuous journey is considered as important as the destination, these things matter.  Cameron has the emotional intelligence to understand this.  He has asked Jo Johnson, the new MP for Orpington who spent 3 years in Delhi as the FT’s Bureau Chief, to craft a long term India strategy.  Johnson’s first job will be to ensure that Cameron and his colleagues connect with the next generation of political leaders during their stay in Delhi.

Cameron’s Chief of Staff, Ed Llewellyn, is experienced enough to know that the real value of a state visit is in the quality of the follow-up.  Cameron needs to signal his seriousness, and then make this stick.  One ploy would be to appoint a senior political ally to the High Commission in Delhi, and give them 5 years to get under the GoI’s skin.  Another smart move would be to institute an annual Prime Ministerial summit. 

Vince Cable can help by reforming Britain’s institutional presence across the sub-continent, which resembles an alphabet soup: the UKTI, the UK-India Business Council, three of the four devolved Governments, England’s Regional Development Authorities (for the time being), the Mayor of London (two offices), the City of London, the CBI, British business groups in each major city in India and the UK India Round Table.  Some of these organizations are excellent, but they inevitably overlap, sometimes compete and certainly confuse Indians. 

But structural streamlining is not the stuff of special relationships.  And Britain cannot produce the sort of transformative gift that George Bush pulled out of his hat in 2008: the Civil Nuclear Agreement which singled out Delhi as Washington’s new best friend.  The post-crisis debate about global institutions could provide opportunities for the UK to position itself as India’s old world cheerleader, but we face strong competition from France.  There is also tension between India’s case for the G20 to replace the UN Security Council (where China is represented but not India) as the world’s management committee; and the UK’s interest in maintaining the post WWII status quo.  Those Indian voices calling for a stronger global role for the EU, as a pillar of 21st century multi-polarity, are unlikely to resonate with William Hague or Liam Fox. 

That something is difficult does not mean it is not the right thing to do.  And Britain retains distinct advantages over other western nations.  We have unique family ties with India, and world class expertise and experience which India needs.  Our open economy, financial skills and historically cheap assets will continue to lure investment from Indian companies.  Education is another potential sweet spot, reflected in the inclusion of university vice chancellors in Cameron’s entourage.  But it is in the defence and security sector that Britain has the best chance of becoming indispensable to Manmohan Singh’s Congress Government.

A history of military co-operation and intelligence sharing, recent experience of terrorist attacks and shared exposure to Afghanistan provide robust foundations for partnership.  The UK is the world’s second biggest defence exporter, while the GoI plans to spend US$100 billion on new weapons systems by 2020.  Making sure Eurofighter Typhoon wins the GoI’s current competition for a new Multi Role Combat Aircraft would be a good start.  This $10 billion programme would underpin 10,000 high quality manufacturing jobs in the UK.  Typhoon won the recent field trials in Bangalore but it faces aggressive competition from the Russian MiG 35 and two American aircraft; the F-16 and Boeing’s Super Hornet. Cameron’s campaigning skills could make a real difference rallying support in Europe and supporting the German-led lobbying effort in India.  

In the end, Cameron needs to persuade the Indians that they can count on Britain, and that a closer relationship with London will generate valuable returns.  He needs to do this with grace and humility, and an eye on the long game.  During the run up to the election, David Cameron’s detractors accused him of being a salesman.  This is the Prime Minister’s chance to prove them right.

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