Where can the UK – India partnership go? Take Two…

If you recollect the 90s, any mention of India in the West used to be hyphenated with the word Pakistan following it. It was at the end of one of the most gruesome and violent periods in the recent history of India that the Blair Government swept to victory. India had a nationalist coalition government at its helm for the very first time, who flexed their muscles on issues concerning national security. In 1998, they broke the moratorium on nuclear testing and suffered global sanctions, which are now defunct and removed.

Recognising the need to hedge its bets, Blair embraced India as a counterbalance to China, despite it not having the promise that we see today; and in all fairness stuck at it despite disastrous visits by the Queen and also by Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary. Little did he know at that time the Y2K bug would actually prove to be a major boon for bilateral relations as it was around this time that Indian IT firms started winning global IT contracts as a result of their price advantage, heralding a promising trade & investment partnership.

Blair’s New Labour Government followed this up by a phenomenal visit to India in 2001, where he signed the New Delhi declaration, which he broke the mould. Simply put, he turned the way the world thought about India, and India knew his endorsement really mattered. For the first time, the UK stated that India was a deserving member to the top table of the international community – he committed to campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This was ground-breaking on any terms.

He followed up by ensuring that India became Britain’s largest bilateral aid & development recipient. His logic was simple: to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the UK taxpayer needed to assist India in eradicating poverty, after all to make an impact on the global scale, India was critical as a third of the world’s poor live in India.

Like this, whether we talk about improving defence ties, promoting education exchanges, increasing trade & investment, Blair pushed the boat out. Every single government department had to have an India champion within it.

In later years, Brown as PM continued on the same trajectory. By this time, India was a permanent fixture at G8 meetings – which would’ve been inconceivable even a few years before, and a true partnership emerged between Manmohan Singh – an economist and former Finance Minister of India & Gordon Brown – an academic and long time Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In later years, the wheels may have come off slightly (read my post on David Miliband’s visit to India as Foreign Secretary, click here), but it’s important to recognise that the Labour government was radical in its approach to India. Like I said before, they truly broke the mould.

Given all the rhetoric on the Conservative Government’s desire to build an “enhanced partnership” with India (the Queen singled out India in this year’s Queen’s Speech), I’m scratching my head as to how they’re going to differentiate themselves from New Labour’s record on India – which incidentally could’ve alienated a massive anti Indian support base that exists within the Party, which almost makes Blair’s support for India even more praiseworthy.

Here are my suggestions as to what the Conservative Government could do to deepen relations with India:

1. Build on the foundations of the UK – India Education & Research Initiative, by promising more funding to promote institutional linkage that can take advantage of the new Indian laws allowing foreign universities to set up there.

2. Take stock of the trade & investment relationship. Why is it that despite so many independent agencies and taxpayer funded promotion bodies our trade support system struggles to excite SMEs to seek partnerships in India. The legend that is Alpesh B. Patel, again reinforced the view that we (read ‘he’) do well in attracting Indian investors to the UK, but struggle in the opposite direction.

3. Don’t cut aid to India. When Andrew Mitchell visits India, he’ll be surrounded with millions of reasons of why we should continue. My friend – Geoffrey Clifton Brown MP, who at the time was a Shadow International Development Minister, visited India last year as part of the IPT delegation and recounted his experience which supported and recommended continued support & aid.

4. Engage the diaspora, for example invite prominent members of the thriving business community to join business & political delegations to India. One of our biggest assets is our diversity. With so many people of Indian origin in this country, make the most of it.

Maybe like George Osborne’s efforts to crowd-source views and suggestions, Prime Minister Cameron may wish to throw a life-line to the civil servants whose job is to put some meaningful suggestions on what an enhanced partnership could look like before his widely expected first visit to India.

Incidentally, another friend – Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, who’s a leading policy expert on strategic & security issues at the IISS wrote the following piece, which proves to be a good read: http://www.iiss.org/whats-new/iiss-in-the-press/june-2010/uk-india-a-special-relationship-for-the-21st-century/?vAction=fntUp

On the election trail – can a leopard change its spots?

I was in Birmingham yesterday, by coincidence the Leaders debate was taking place at Birmingham University, being hosted by my Alma Mater, Aston University, where I was delivering the keynote address on entrepreneurship at an event organised by the excellent Aston India Foundation & Deloitte.

In conversation with a few guests who’d been invited to the Aston event, one person expressed an opinion which over the past few weeks has been aired but not really hit home with me, as I was too naïve and (perhaps) young to remember the last Tory government.

The gentleman, who’s a small business owner explained that he’d either be voting for Clegg or Brown, when I asked him why he wouldn’t consider Cameron, he said that it didn’t seem to him that they’d do anything to support SMEs – an argument I’ve heard several times, but the killer blow to me was that he went on and explained that he lost his house under the last Tory government. He relived the experience and took the time to, very painfully, explain what happened.

Similarly, I was talking to a hospital doctor, who spoke about how Labour’s done an amazing job in rebuilding hospitals and under the last Tory government, the situation was very bleak – as if they just didn’t care about the NHS. I’ve been expecting nurses and support staff to tell me these kind of stories, but not a doctor.

I’m a Governor of my local school, and in line with this duty, a parent approached me to echo exactly the same theme. He went further to point out that at least there some sense of normality out there – where we live – restaurants seem busy on Saturday nights, shops seem to be trading etc – during the last recession, he remembered reading the headlines in newspapers of people committing suicide because they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages.

It strikes me, that after all this, can the Tories change the perceptions of being the so called, “nasty party” that people have been relaying stories about to me?

It may be cool and hip to jump on the bandwagon, but can a political ideology and set of values really change that much in such a short span of time?

The Conservatives & India: Politics of climate change

So, I was invited to the launch of the UK – India Business Leaders Climate Group on Friday at the London Business School, in which David Cameron MP launched a new forum that links businesses in UK & India to find synergies and technologies that fight global warming.

Amongst the good and great, Lord Chris Patten – one time Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Hogg – Chairman of 3i and former Head of John Major’s Policy Unit at Downing St, and Sir Stuart Rose of M&S – all rubbed shoulders with almost half a dozen Shadow Tory Ministers and approx 50 business folks.

On the face of it, great idea… but I can’t help thinking that DC’s statement that the group was an apolitical force for good, is slightly misleading given the make up of the room and the critical remarks of the current government.

Looking at this from the Indian side, this represents a much cleverer manner to court the Conservatives, rather than the approach they’ve adopted in the past few years of going after them in a more aggressive manner. This, the more subtler approach is probably a reaction to the narrowing in opinion polls, in which it seems we’re headed into hung-parliament territory and not a certain Tory win.

David Cameron meets Indian CEOs

I’d organised a meeting yesterday between David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition, and a client of ours called ‘The India Group’, which is an alliance of the European based CEOs of large Indian private sector firms. Not only did we meet someone who’s described as our next Prime Minister, he also made sure that William Hague, Shadow Foreign Minister, and Ken Clarke, Shadow Business Minister, both of whom are considered ‘heavyweights’ in the Conservative Party, and should retain their high profile portfolios if they form the next government, attended this meeting.

Cameron was relaxed despite having to respond to the Prime Minister’s Iraq Inquiry statement later in the day. He appeared knowledgable and personable and had, what seemed obvious to me, been briefed appropriately in advance on the key issues that may arise.

So, it’s no surprise that business immigration featured highly with the IT companies leading the charge on labour mobility within the UK in the context of TUPE legislation. He spoke about Ken Clarke leading a review on Whitehall red tape that will help form their policies in advance of the next general election.

On trade promotion in India, Cameron suggested that some of the Regional Development Agencies across England would be put on notice. He recognised that trade promotion in India may also need looking at and the India Group recommended that just as Indian SMEs seemed to be embracing opportunities in the UK, the Government really needed to push British SMEs to do more with India. Banks like ICICI had tried linking up with counterparts in the UK to provide trade finance for their clients interested in India, with not much success, which seems a shame given the scale of the opportunity.

Hague spoke about a better relationship on foreign policy, which all India watcher’s will agree about, especially as Miliband’s visit to India was seen as an unmitigated disaster. Hague spoke of their support for India and Japan for permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which we know China has a different view on.

The Conservative team were interested in the pace of market reforms the new Congress lead coalition would take, to which the India Group agreed that the Insurance sector would probably be the first to have FDI levels increased. What was interesting was that the CEO’s, all, were united in conveying that despite the shortcomings in some industry sectors, India was open for business. It just so happens that the two big sectors that the UK has particular competence in – financial services and retail – are the one’s that have yet to be liberalised. Fair point.

Closer to the hearts of some of those was the issue of personal taxation and non-dom, to which Cameron was quick off the blocks to suggest that had the government adopted the plans they’d suggested, those around the table would have the certainty they desired.

I’ll conclude with sharing how they started as it’s an important point. Cameron emphasised that both – the Labour Party & the Conservatives (a) didn’t really differ on issues concerning India – whether this was trade or foreign policy and (b) that both parties shared the view that Britain was a better place as an open globalised economy, one which market protectionism and restrictive practices were unwelcome.