Cameron Has Championed India's Interests Like Few British PMs

Tomorrow, Britain will go to the polls to elect its new government. This is one of the strangest elections in recent memory in the country as there is no sense of who might be the winner. The opinion polls are putting the two main national parties, the Conservatives and the Labour, neck-and-neck. No side has so far succeeded in making a winning argument. The polls are pointing to a hung parliament much to the consternation of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the Conservatives and the Labour Party respectively.

Both main parties suffer from serious drawbacks. David Cameron is liked more than Miliband on a personal level but his party is seen as one that will bring in more cuts in social sector spending. Miliband is not seen as an effective leader and fails to connect with the people. Even the television debate among the leaders of the seven main parties did little to help either candidate. Instead, it gave a platform to the smaller parties and their leaders: UK Independence Party (UKIP)'s Nigel Farage and late additions like Natalie Bennett of the Greens, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) to reach out to a wider audience.

The two main parties are making a desperate bid to attract voters. Where the Labour Party is promising to abolish the non-domicile rule that allows some wealthy UK residents to limit the tax paid on earnings outside the country, the Conservatives are focusing to rebuild their credibility on the National Health Service (NHS). With the British economy now the fastest growing in Europe, the Conservatives are also warning that Labour could not be trusted on the economy.

But what this election is revealing about Britain is that the country has changed significantly over the last few years. The Conservatives are facing desertions in favour of UKIP, while the Labour Party is getting decimated on its home turf in Scotland with the rise of the Scottish Nationalists. Prime Minister David Cameron is busy urging UKIP supporters to "come home" to the Tories, saying the general election is not the time to register a protest vote. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is making life difficult for the Labour Party by suggesting that the SNP would help make Ed Miliband Prime Minister if the Conservatives fail to win a majority in the general election. The more SNP says this, the more voters in England are likely to turn away from Labour. Miliband knows this, and so he and his party has been trying to everything to maintain a safe distance from the SNP.

India and Britain had forged a 'strategic partnership' during the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to India in 2005 but it remained a partnership only in name. The Conservatives are keen on imparting it a new momentum. The UK is the largest European investor in India, and India is the second largest investor in the UK. Indian students are the second-largest group in Britain. There are significant historical, linguistic and cultural ties that remain untapped. But the Labour government's legacy for India is very complex and Cameron's government needed great diplomatic finesse to manage the challenges. This was particularly true of the issue of Kashmir where the Labour government could not help but irritate New Delhi. As late as 2009,  former Foreign Secretary David Miliband was hectoring the Indian government that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is essential to solving the problem of extremism in South Asia. In so doing, Miliband revealed not only his fundamental ignorance about regional issues, but in one stroke damaged the potential governmental ties of Britain with India.

Granted that Indians tend to overreact whenever there is even an indication of any outside interest on the issue of Kashmir, but Miliband's ill-informed pronouncements and complete lack of sensitivity to Indian concerns raised some fundamental questions in New Delhi about the trajectory of British foreign policy. Miliband was merely trying to assuage the concerns of the Labour Party's domestic constituents, in particular  Pakistani Muslims who form the largest share of British Muslims. But such an approach has left an indelible mark on the Indian psyche of Britain being on the side of Pakistan on this most crucial of issues.


Cameron's government made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the sub-continent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. David Cameron made all the right noises in India during his first trip in 2010. Cameron warned Pakistan against promoting any "export of terror", whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to "look both ways". He has proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain, like India, is determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain. Despite causing a diplomatic row with Pakistan and David Miliband calling him "loudmouth," Cameron stuck to his comments. More significantly, the British Prime Minister also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute.

David Cameron has championed Indian interests like few British Prime Ministers in recent years. A Conservative-led government will be good for India. But the rise of India as an economic power is transforming British attitudes towards India across the political spectrum and even a Labour Party government, despite its proclivity to lecture on human rights and the impact of its Pakistani immigrant support base, won't be in a position to ignore Delhi.

What Delhi can be reasonably sure of is that whoever forms the next government, India will remain a foreign policy priority.

(Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is "India's Afghan Muddle" (HarperCollins).

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