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