David Cameron in India: Looking for game-changers

Updated: Jul 30, 2010, 11:25 AM IST

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury

On 20 September 2004, India and the UK formally launched their “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Four years later (21 January 2008) they committed themselves to strengthening and deepening this relationship. Today, this includes regular Prime Ministerial meetings (as many as four last year), regular summits (the fourth was held in January 2008), shared interests and values, democratic traditions and growing trade and investment ties (in 2008-09 bilateral trade stood at $12.5 billion; in 2009-10 the UK was the 4th largest investor into India although with just a 5% share, whereas India was the second-largest foreign investor in London after the US, with Tata as the largest foreign investor in the UK industry).

Some 1.5-2.0 million people of Indian-origin also live in the UK; currently, there are eight Indian-origin MPs and 20 peers of the House of Lords.

On 25 May 2010, the Queen’s Speech to the new Parliament emphasised the need for “an enhanced partnership with India”. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition programme for government seeks to establish a “new special relationship” with India. It is in this light that the visit of David Cameron, UK’s youngest PM in 200 years, should be seen.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s congratulatory letter of 12 May to Cameron makes no mention of a “special relationship”; it simply states that both countries are well-placed “to build upon this strong edifice” of bilateral relations. India today has formal strategic relationships with 23 countries worldwide, ranging from all the P-5 Members to those that have intrinsic and special value to India’s regional and global interests, including Iran, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mongolia!

If the British government is serious in building an “enhanced partnership” with India, above and beyond its deep existing “strategic partnership”, this can be done only through a ‘game-changing’ event or a series of high-level developments in their bilateral relationship. This will entail a tremendous government-wide effort and a certain amount of risk-taking by both countries.

This is what is expected in Cameron’s visit.

There is a recent precedence for this in relation to the U.S. On 10 October 2008, India and the US signed their controversial landmark agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, which transformed their bilateral relations. This agreement essentially re-wrote global rules on civil nuclear commerce and trade. On 11 February 2010 India and the UK also signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

The key to a prospective bilateral “enhanced partnership”, therefore, depends on building substantively on a specific core issue or a related set of issues in a ‘game-changing’ manner, while taking an inherent risk with each other. These could include:

First, Establishing an annual Prime Ministerial-led Strategic Dialogue: Such a dialogue would provide ‘political visibility’ to the bilateral relationship and could focus on a wide range of national (education and science & technology), regional (Afghanistan, Pakistan & Indian Ocean), and global (China and Asia-Pacific security) issues. It could serve to identify the core issue of such a prospective relationship. Such a ‘top-down’ approach is ideally favoured by India, partly to ensure its own inter-ministerial coordination. The India-UK Roundtable, suitably modified, could serve as the intellectual hub.

Second, Boosting Cooperation on Counter Terror & Intelligence Sharing: A primary security concern for India today is a spectacular terror attack in the run-up to the 3-14 October 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, which could result in some of the 70+ countries reconsidering participation. A specific threat to the Games was made in February 2010 by Pakistani militant, Ilyas Kashmiri, commander of the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) terror group. Despite progress on this issue in the last few years, differences emerged in the investigation of one of the two June 2007 Glasgow bombers, Indian national Kafeel Ahmed.

The last Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism and was held in December 2008. The newly established UK National Security Council and a National Security Advisor provides a unique opportunity to build relations with their Indian counterparts in existence for the past decade.

Third, Reforming global financial institutions and providing a greater role to the G20: India’s economic growth primarily drives its emergence as a strategic power with increasing global reach and importance in international affairs. Yet, its emergence as a new economic power is not reflected in the leadership or decision-making structures of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank (where it is the 7th largest shareholder). The G20, with India as a Member, could also be further ‘empowered’.

The UK is one of a few countries that publicly supports India’s membership of a reformed UN Security Council, though there is no consensus on reform itself. As it is unlikely that another ‘game-changing’ event is likely to take place in India-US relations in the next few years, this provides the UK a ‘window of opportunity’ to potentially play a key role in facilitating such reform.

For the UK, the key question is whether it is willing to take a risk with India and work together on a ‘game-changing’ event? Also, whether the UK has the power and the influence to do such global ‘facilitating’/‘heavy lifting’; or would this largely be confined to the US?

For India, it remains concerned over the British coalition government’s intention to “...stand firm on human rights in all our bilateral relationships” (as stated in its programme of work), if this is intended in relation to Kashmir, the tribal or the Dalit community, over which the Indian government remains sensitive. Another problem is that India may not be able or willing to adequately reciprocate the UK’s commitment to an “enhanced partnership” in view of its varied priorities, and may therefore end up rebuffing it.

Nevertheless, the new British government’s intention to build an “enhanced partnership with India” is a welcome development and needs to be seriously discussed by both governments as how best to work towards such a new relationship.

(Writer is the Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He also served in the National Security Council Secretariat in the Prime Minister`s Office in India.)

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