Af-Pak: this is the ONLY game changer in the UK – India relationship

ADVICE TO DAVID CAMERON FOR HIS FORTHCOMING PRIME MINISTERIAL VISIT TO INDIA

Accompanied with the increasing level of media interest in the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to India, it’s heartening that my recent posts on the bilateral relationship have also stirred some interest.

Regardless of the substantive points that result from this visit, it’s obvious that this opportunity will be used to affirm the new Government’s desire to bring a step change to the relationship.

There’s been speculation as to the shape and size of the accompanying delegation, and the only difference from the past, as far as I’m concerned is that David Cameron’s taking almost a third of his Cabinet with him, I assume, to underscore the emphasis on building a wide ranging, cross departmental, relationship. So, I’m lead to believe Messrs Hague, Willets, Cable, Osborne, are definitely on, as are blue chip CEOs like Stuart Rose of M&S.

Such a symbolic act serves to assure Indian counterparts of Team GBs’ seriousness, which I’m sure will be warmly received and all goodwill credited & reciprocated over the term of this parliament.

Apart from the presentational aspects of the visit, which I accept are fairly important, my thinking on the substantive points that may emerge and set the path for an enhanced relationship have also been in development.

In previous posts, I realise that there’s been a far too great an emphasis on the trade & investment relationship. Actually, when I sat down to think about the real game-changers in the relationship during the Blair era, the vast majority came as a result of a change in thinking in our Foreign Office.

So, it’s no surprise that William Hague, during his years in wilderness, has cultivated a fairly strong understanding on India, and that he should realise that the following two aspects are critical to the step-change that the coalition govt aspires to:

DECOUPLE INDIA-PAKISTAN

Not that I see this as too much of a problem, but there is a tendency to link the two neighbours. This hyphenation creates unnecessary tension, as the past ten years clearly demonstrate, India’s charted a very different path to Pakistan, there’s definitely a sense that the world needs to treat both countries on their own merits and not as a hyphenated couple.

The most obvious example of such a change in thinking i.e. one based on merit, is that of the US – India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which broke the mould and provided a much needed step change to the US – India relationship. Despite both India & Pakistan being nuclear armed nations, it was made clear that no such deal could be done with India’s neighbour as a result of her poor proliferation record.

We really don’t need to balance what we do with India in Pakistan. Both countries are separate entities, with their own prospects and challenges. So let’s treat them as such.

The added advantage the Tories have is that they don’t need to be worried about the Pakistani vote bank in constituencies across Britain, which to a degree resulted in Labour’s need to perform a finely balanced act in the way it treated India & Pakistan. It was felt that the impact in Labour seats of any divergence in treatment could have a material impact in local & general elections.

AFGHANISTAN

That India wants what we and the Americans do is not in doubt. A stable Afghanistan is the aim that the international community rightly aspires to. However, the big difference is in approach.

Also, there’s a school of thinking that promotes that India has a limited role and view to offer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. India has a vested interest in the region, and used to share a border with Afghanistan pre 1947, so to argue otherwise shows a shallow understanding of the region.

The difference in approach I refer to is that of engaging the enemy, which in this case is the Taliban… which we seem to favour. For India, this is a total show-stopper. Given that the last time the Taliban got involved in running Afghanistan, India suffered badly.

We’d do well in remembering the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 184 in 1999 where the Taliban regime provided safe passage to the Pakistani hijackers who took control of the plane, which was forced to land in Kandahar. On the airstrip, the Taliban even moved its well armed fighters near the aircraft in an attempt to prevent Indian Special Forces from storming the aircraft! This flash-point was a massively significant event for India, which played out on national TV for days and is etched permanently in their national psyche. So to ask them to cast it aside as an extreme, sole example shows our total insensitivity.

Furthermore, it transpired in later investigations that one of the Pakistani militants who was released by the Indian authorities in the barter deal for the return of hostages, went onto form a terrorist group called Jaish-e-Muhammed, which received extensive aid from the Taliban and pro – Taliban groups in Pakistan for attacks in India.

To say that the approach to bringing an enduring stability to Afghanistan matters is important, would be a major understatement and show a major disregard to a country that Cameron is trying to forge a “strategic partnership” with.

A “strategic partnership” necessitates the convergence of views on domestic, regional, and global issues, where you try and understand each other’s sensitivities in order to work more effectively to achieve mutual goals. In 2004, Blair ensured there was a convergence of views on foreign policy – by stating our support for India’s seat on the UN Security Council; by calling a spade a spade when it came to condemning Pakistan for supporting cross border terrorism in Kashmir; and finally by ensuring India was invited to G8 meetings, albeit as an observer.

We may have our political pressures in wanting to bring our troops back home, but if this means that we’d have to engage the Taliban in discussions, India’s track record with them and their obvious discomfort need to be taken into consideration, as once we’ve left we’re going to have to rely on regional partners (read: India) in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability.

Prime Minister Cameron needs to work towards assuring India that our approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan would have their interest at heart. Without this, I fear the “strategic partnership” that we’re all looking for remains an aspiration.

If there’s a game-changer, then this is it.

David Miliband's visit to India

The Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to India, which has created quite a stir in India and within the diaspora in the UK, reinforces, at least for me, the need for better inter-cultural understanding from both sides. Yes, he could’ve avoided connecting the recent Mumbai attacks with the bilateral dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir; yes, he could’ve avoided coming across as arrogant and forceful; yes, he could’ve adhered to formal titles when addressing senior ministers in Delhi; and of course, yes, he shouldn’t have visited Rahul Gandhi’s constituency so close to the upcoming general election.

We’ll do well to remember that Indian politics is complex and the subtext of what you say is probably more important that the actual words you finally use, we’ll also benefit if we understand that in most cases, Indian politicians come into the front line after they hit a half century – let’s not forget Manmohan Singh is in his 70s and Mr Advani is in his 80s. With Miliband barely into his 40s, it must come as a huge surprise to the Indians when the “young man” started flexing his muscles.

David’s visit to Pakistan is being hailed a huge success as my sources tell me that he got them to agree to move a lot further than expected on key issues including curtailing their terror infested networks, which is the right place to  flex his muscles. In my opinion, India deserves a little more respect given our alignment of many, many strategic & substantive issues.

Now that the visit is consigned to history, if I were David Miliband, I’d ask myself what I could improve on and work towards that goal. No Foreign Secretary is going to be able to avoid India, so you might as well acknowledge that you may have got your messaging wrong and that future visits and speeches will be planned with an extra helping of intercultural awareness.