July 26, 2010 8:28 pm

India eyes an American special relationship

A gap has opened in the relationship between London and Delhi, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta

David Cameron’s visit to India this week seeks to restart a once-strong alliance. Historical and cultural ties remain, but for the past decade the sense in Delhi has been that this is a relationship in decline. Britain’s share in India’s trade and investment has fallen. David Miliband’s clumsy comments on Kashmir angered many by implying Indian responsibility for the mess in Afghanistan. As the US has become the country to emulate, Britain has become marginal to Indian political consciousness.

The Indian government will be too polite to say it, but there is a lot of (perhaps premature) condescension in India towards Britain’s shrinking role in the world. Where once Britain educated India’s ruling classes, now most head to the US. The economist Amartya Sen’s move from Harvard to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was described in India as a move from a powerhouse to a museum. In subtle ways Indians are constantly comparing the ability of the US to cut imaginative deals that benefit India directly with that of other nations. And on the quiet, the dynamism of their new relationship with the Americans has inspired hope in many Indians that they may come to replace the United Kingdom as the US’s special ally among the world’s democracies.

Mr Cameron’s extensive delegation hopes to reverse this trend, and he has some reason for optimism. Both countries naturally want to deepen their economic relationship. India will continue to grow in excess of 9 per cent, while both its burgeoning middle class and an unprecedented level of new investment in military hardware will make India a vital export market for Britain. Indian outbound investment, meanwhile, is still looking to tap into Britain’s research and design capabilities.

But Cameron’s visit comes at a time when both nations are trying to redefine their position in the world order. India has a sense of itself as a rising power. Britain is undergoing a moment of introspection, in the wake of its fiscal crisis. Underneath lie two differing conceptions of globalisation that make an Anglo-Indian partnership less likely.

Britain wants an open global economy to allow it to export the services in which it is most competitive. But, as in the past, India will open up its economy at its own speed, and largely on its own terms. There is little appetite in Delhi to open its finance, banking, insurance or retail sectors further, all areas in which British exports could prosper. Cameron’s hope for a boost for British businesses from the trip in these areas is therefore unlikely to yield dividends. India, on the other hand, wants globalisation to mean freer movement for its people, and foreign markets for its own services. Here Mr Cameron’s plans for an immigration cap in the UK, in particular, are viewed with dismay.

To be fair, Mr Cameron’s government has acknowledged shifts in the global balance of power, for instance supporting India’s bid for a UN Security Council seat. But many in India view Britain’s continuing presence at the head of so many global governance institutions as a perpetuation of an old world order, created at Yalta in 1945. Worse, strategically Britain has little to contribute to India’s principal security objectives: the stabilisation of Af-Pak, and the management of growing Chinese power. On other issues central to India’s security, like energy or building new coalitions at the global level, it is now more likely to turn to Brazil, South Africa or Russia.

India and Britain do have a common interest in fighting terrorism, and this trip will likely bring a greater commitment to security cooperation. But India is watching developments in Afghanistan with apprehension. The imposition of new sanctions against Iran mean the prospects for a serious regional initiative on stabilising Afghanistan are now ruled out. Pakistan feels that the west’s growing weakness in the region has left it holding all the strategic cards, especially with a return to power of its Taliban allies now more likely. So India would like Mr Cameron to put his political weight behind plans that stabilise Afghanistan in a way that gives no political space to the Taliban, and which safeguards India’s economic influence. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

Yet changes in India and Britain’s respective geo-political roles can be seen most obviously in their mutual relationship to the US. India’s cultural and social ties with the US are now so deep that the ruling classes in the two countries are more seamlessly bound than India and Britain ever were. Despite some misgivings about the Obama administration, Indians believe the US has actively supported their arrival on to the world stage, offering in particular an unprecedented nuclear deal. American business, judged by attendance at the Indo-US Business Council at least, has also emerged as a lobbying force on India’s behalf.

Britain, by contrast, has little to offer that grips India’s imagination. The East India Company came as a trade delegation and founded a mighty empire; Mr Cameron will have to prove, that the prime minister of Britain can lead something other than a mere business delegation.

The author is president of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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