Cameron to visit India in bid to boost trade, polls prospects

Mr Cameron and wife Samantha pouring water on a Hindu deity as they visit a temple in London for Diwali. The British PM believes Britain can benefit from its historic and personal affinities with rising India.

BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron will embark on his second visit to India in nine months next week, underscoring his keen interest in developing ties - particularly trade relations - with the former British colony.

The attention which Mr Cameron lavishes on India is extraordinary. The forthcoming trip will take him there on Thursday on his way to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. It is the British leader's third to India since he came to power in 2010.

More remarkably still, none of these visits - which included hundreds of officials and businessmen - were reciprocated with a return visit by Indian premier Manmohan Singh as protocol usually dictates. Diplomats in London cannot recall a precedent of such a one-sided courtship in recent times.

Cynics view this as part of Mr Cameron's electoral tactics in the run-up to a general election scheduled for 2015. People of Indian origin are the biggest single ethnic minority group in Britain, accounting for about two million of the 61-million-strong population.

And while the first generation of Indian immigrants voted overwhelmingly for Britain's Labour party, the new generation is far more prosperous and therefore seen as ideal electoral fodder for Mr Cameron's Conservatives.

So, just as Israel is for the United States not only a foreign policy issue but a domestic one, so is India for Britain.

Mr Cameron has certainly not been shy in playing up the Indian electoral card: he celebrated Diwali with his wife Samantha at a temple in London's borough of Neasden earlier this week and made sure that journalists were there to record the event.

Furthermore, Mr Cameron scrapped an existing ban on official contacts with Mr Narendra Modi, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat and prime ministerial candidate of India's opposition Bharatya Janata Party.

The official explanation Mr Cameron gave is that "Britain talks and engages with opposition parties in all countries". But the real reason is that a hefty chunk of Indians in Britain are Gujarati, and they can tip the electoral balance in about 20 parliamentary constituencies.

Still, there is no question that Mr Cameron's attraction to India goes beyond electoral tactics. He believes that, among all the rising powers in the world, Britain is best-placed to benefit from its historic and personal affinities with India. And although bilateral trade between the two nations is still relatively small - £16 billion (S$32billion) last year - it is growing by over 20 per cent yearly, so Mr Cameron's target of doubling this by 2015 looks realistic.

Furthermore, many of the areas in which Britain excels - insurance, financial services, retail - are those in which pent-up demand from a growing Indian middle class offers lucrative opportunities. And unlike China's, India's market is far more open to such British operations.

India's own investments in Britain are also a success story.

The purchase of car maker Jaguar Land Rover by India's Tata Motors transformed that company: output has doubled to about 357,000 cars a year and the experience is touted as a classic case of how a business can be revived.

Out of a total of 1,200 Indian companies with subsidiaries in Europe, 700 have chosen Britain as their operational base.

Not everything is rosy, however. Britain's bid to sell its Typhoon fighter jet to the Indian Air Force flopped last year. And trade apart, many of India's strategic experts remain sceptical on what Britain's diminishing international presence can offer in military terms. "The UK is unlikely to serve as a useful partner for India in Asia," claims Dr S. Kalyanaraman, of Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Beyond that, there is the perennial problem of humiliating visa application procedures which Indian nationals have to endure before visiting Britain. Earlier this week, Mr Cameron decided to scrap a controversial visa bond scheme under which citizens from a handful of "immigration high-risk" countries such as India would have had to deposit £3,000 before obtaining a temporary entry permit to the UK.

"This was never targeted at India; it was an idea suggested within government, but we decided not to go ahead with it," said Mr Cameron, in an interview with NDTV, a private Indian TV channel. But there is no question that anger generated by the proposal in India contributed to its quick demise.

Mr Cameron dismisses such difficulties as "hiccups".

At least one group of Indians are welcome with open arms by the British. A quarter of all the houses and flats sold in Mayfair - London's swankiest and most expensive district - went to wealthy Indian buyers last year.

And the Hinduja brothers, one of India's industrial dynasties, now live in a grand residence near Buckingham Palace. They bought it from a previous owner who needed the cash: the Queen.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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