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22 January 2001

New raj – but no pith helmets

Why are so many members of the British government so often in India? John Elliott in New Delhi expla

By John Elliott

Three British ministers in three weeks; ten in seven months. That is the remarkable tally of members of the government who have visited India recently. They include Clare Short, Stephen Byers and Baroness (Tessa) Blackstone, who have just finished consecutive visits on their aid, industry and education beats; George Noon and Peter Hain, who were here just before Christmas on defence sales and foreign affairs; plus the head of the Foreign Office, the Lord Mayor of London and a few MPs.

That is more top-level visitors than any other country sends, including even the United States, which began a love-in with India when President Bill Clinton visited last March. It is also considerably more than the usual number of ministers who, at this time of year, regularly look for excuses to escape from London to India’s relatively warm and welcoming winters; in turn, Indian ministers were seen seeking the cool and comforts of London last summer.

So why is it happening? A cynic would say that Labour has a pre-general election eye on the million people of Indian origin who live in the UK – but that would scarcely warrant such a cavalcade.

Part of the reason is the trend set by Clinton’s visit, when he said that “we welcome India’s leadership in the region and the world”. That was the first time India had been treated as anything approaching an equal by a world power, and it was quickly followed by a visit from Robin Cook, who tried to say the same sort of thing, but fell short on flair.

The primary reason, however, is rather more significant than Britain tagging along on America’s coat-tails. It is, quite simply, that India has succeeded in winning the international recognition and attention that it sought when it staged five nuclear tests in 1998. At the time, the country was widely condemned; it was hit with international sanctions from the nuclear club, which resented such an economically backward upstart trying to jump into the big league.

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Since then, however, Indian ministers and diplomats have persuaded the US, Britain and other countries that India’s nuclear motives are solely defensive. So, in the words of one foreign diplomat, India “successfully dealt itself a card at a higher table”, and it is now reaping the rewards – including the gradual ending of sanctions. Pakistan, by contrast, has not been rehabilitated since its own nuclear tests, and there have been no British ministerial visits.

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India now realises that it needs friends in the west – and most ministers and bureaucrats find London a congenial place to visit, even if it is more fashionable for the Indian elite to send their children to Harvard and Wharton than to Oxford and the London School of Economics.

This has given Britain a chance to reconstruct its often fractious, post-colonial relationship, which both sides say is currently “the best ever” and “far more equal than before”. In the past, it has been highly accident-prone, falling foul of (at various times) India’s closeness to the old Soviet Union and the activities of Sikh mili-tants in Britain. Labour came to power with a pro-Pakistan stance that led Cook into diplomatic gaffes during the Queen’s less than successful visit in 1997.

Now Tony Blair sees the advantage in long-term British involvement with an English-speaking Asian country that has booming information technology and software industries, as well as nuclear capability. India will always, inevitably, see its ties with the US as its most important foreign relationship, and will always be fairly close to Russia; but this leaves plenty of room for Britain to become a sort of diplomatic best friend, providing a sympathetic ear in international bodies.

Byers, for example, backed India in a trade row with the US over Europe’s basmati rice imports, and supported India’s opposition to labour standards being brought under the orbit of the World Trade Organisation. India has Britain’s support on Commonwealth issues, such as Pakistan’s border hostilities, and it can tap into Britain’s involvement in peace efforts over Sri Lanka’s Tamil troubles, where it has a deep interest. The two countries are now setting up a working group on terrorism (Jack Straw visited India in September), and Clare Short is raising Britain’s poverty-oriented aid budget to India from £100m a year to £300m by 2004.

The UK’s gains are more tangible. The main prize is a £1bn order for up to 60 Hawk trainer jet aircraft; Britain hopes BAE Systems will sign soon, after 14 years of negotiations. British firms have done well in the opening up of India’s insurance industry, bagging three of the first five private-sector licences to be issued.

Britain also wants to tap India’s abundant software workforce: during Byers’s visit, Marconi announced that it is opening a £33m internet technology development centre outside Delhi, which it hopes will help it to recruit some of the brains. And Blair and others have realised how useful it is for future foreign leaders and opinion-formers to be educated in Britain – a point that Margaret Thatcher ignored when she did away with financial help for foreign students in the 1980s. Now Britain aims to increase the number of Indian students studying in the UK by 50 per cent – to 9,000 a year by 2005. By a nice coincidence, Indo-British trade has hit record levels, growing by about 50 per cent in the past decade to almost £5bn a year.

There are still a few irritants. US sanctions on aircraft spare parts are bedevilling the Hawk deal and grounding many of the Indian navy’s Westland helicopters. A British pilot is incarcerated in a Calcutta jail after a mysterious 1995 arms drop that went wrong, even though his five Russian-born Latvian compatriots have been released. But such issues are kept in perspective.

The style of the diplomacy has also changed. Britain’s rather hectoring approach has mostly gone, and India is no longer told what it should be doing with quite the same air of superiority. And the British Council is shaking off its soft cultural image – it has had six British scientists travelling round India this month on a programme called “Dolly and Beyond”, arguing the rights and wrongs (mostly the rights) of genetically modified foods and other aspects of biotechnology. That is quite brave in a country where many people see Monsanto and its GM foods as a reincarnation of evil colonial mischief.

All this two-way bonhomie would not be possible if India had not been gradually opening its doors since 1991, first economically and, more recently, with its foreign policy. Narasimha Rao, the former Congress prime minister who ushered in the 1991 reforms, said at a recent seminar in Delhi that India had become only partly free when British rule ended in 1947. After that, it had been caught and buffeted between the two superpowers and (though he did not spell this out) cosseted by inefficient subsidised capital goods from the Soviet Union.

“The full freedom to dream the way you like came only in 1991, not 1947,” said Rao. He was putting his own achievements on a pedestal. But he had a point – because the collapse of the Soviet Union forced India to stand on its own, to open up its economy and, subsequently, to seek new friends in the west.