by Professor Gurharpal Singh
The visit of leading cabinet ministers led by David Cameron to India this week marks a sea change in the UK's relations with the emerging economic superpower in Asia. It sends a clear signal that the coalition government is thinking strategically and is willing to shed the baggage of new Labour which often bordered on hectoring the Indian political elite. How effectively this opportunity will be grasped, however, will depend on the extent to which the leaders of both countries are able to look beyond the short term.
The coalition government badly needs an economic success story. And, India with its record economic growth and a burgeoning middle class is an attractive market. Britain has a significant advantage in sectors such as higher education which can provide invaluable assistance in fashioning India's new universities for India's needs. Equally, it is well placed to lead major infrastructural projects that have so far gone to Asian or local businesses. And Britain has a major advantage which eludes its competitors: apart from history and language, it has a substantial and upwardly mobile Indian diaspora. With some direction, like the Chinese diaspora before it, this could serve as an economic bridge between the two nations and at the same time diminish the immigration flows that so rile public opinion.
For India the symbolism of the visit is likely to make good copy but will only be meaningful if Cameron's team demonstrate a sensitivity and openness to Indian concerns not least of which is Pakistan and its clandestine support of militants in Kashmir, Afghanistan and terrorist violence in India. Also, the lockdown against professional migrants, and the threat to cut development aid which sustains a myriad of interests among politicians and the bureaucracy.
Beyond markets, Britain is also a useful conduit for India's global ambitions as the premier conduit for its soft power — culture, Bollywood, food, language — that can help reinvent the country into a responsible and modern nation. In short, Britain can play a major role as the handmaiden of Indian power.
The strength of any long term vision emerging from talks between David Cameron and Manmohan Singh will be demonstrated by its ability to withstand the regular turbulence — over immigration, foreign policy differences, human rights abuses in India, allegations of corruption and the politics of ethnic lobbies in Britain — that have been the constant feature of post-1947 Anglo-Indian relations.
Gurharpal Singh is the Nadir Dinshaw professor of inter-religious relations at the University of Birmingham.
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