Viewed from the UK, where I’m currently travelling, David Cameron’s visit to India looks like a public relations stunt gone wrong, mainly because the British prime minister fell into the trap of meddling in India-Pakistan issues while travelling on the subcontinent.
Some 13 years ago the then Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, helped to muck up a royal visit to India by backing Pakistan during a visit to Islamabad just before he and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Delhi. Then, in January last year, the by-then Labour government foreign secretary David Miliband was rebuked when he lectured prime minister Manmohan Singh on how to handle Kashmir – remember Britain’s handling of Northern Ireland, Miliband was gently told.
Cameron said on his first day in India – in Bangalore – that “We should be very, very clear with Pakistan that ……we cannot tolerate in any sense this idea that the country is allowed to look both ways and is involved in promoting terror in any way in India, in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.”
Cameron was of course on target with his criticism of Pakistan, but India was not the place to say it because it diverted attention from his investment-oriented visit – unless you take the Machiavellian approach that it increased media coverage of a trip that might have otherwise made few headlines. It was also unwise to make such a snap remark without planning for the downside – in this case endangering Britain’s links with Pakistan’s intelligence services.
But what can Cameron or Britain do to show it “cannot tolerate” Pakistan’s decades-long “facing both ways” over terrorism? The answer of course is nothing – and nor can the US, despite its current breast-beating over recent Wikipedia leaks that document the Pakistan defence establishment’s support for the Taliban. So it was futile of Cameron to say it.
One might have guessed Cameron would get it wrong because of the way he wrote in The Hindu newspaper a day or two earlier that he was going to India in a “spirit of humility”. This ex-public relations executive is hardly a humble politician, even though the Daily Telegraph this morning managed to rake up a story from Bangalore - headlined “Mahatma Cameron” – about a hotel butler who was pleased he’d been thanked for his work.
Apart from that, the British media stayed focussed on the Pakistan gaffe plus Cameron’s display as a batsman (above) and a wriggle when he was asked whether Britain would return the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
There was little humility in the size of Cameron’s entourage – six government ministers and what the Financial Times called “a posse of business leaders, university chancellors and sporting heroes”. Britain was fighting far above its weight with such a delegation but, despite that and accompanying hype, there was some substance.
A £700m Indian order for 57 Hawk jet trainers to add to its existing fleet was fixed just in time to be announced , and there were agreements on tackling terrorism and British exports of civilian nuclear technology. There are to be more education and science exchanges, a new business forum has been set up to link top executives from the two countries, and so on.
All that of course could have been done without all the razzmatazz and, dare one say it, maybe even without Cameron being there. But at least he has done better than Tony Blair, who never bothered to make a dedicated trip like this one to India and only popped in on the back of some other world errand.
John Major was the last British prime minister to be keen on the country. He was drawn by a love of cricket and curry – and on one visit chased Hawk orders, signed educational etc agreements, and set up a forum to link top executives and others from the two countries.
Cameron’s aim with his big delegation has been to demonstrate that he is making India a priority, hoping to tap its potential for trade and for investment into the UK. This of course is not new – despite Blair’s lack of personal interest, there have been many British ministerial visits to India in recent years. But it was a good stunt to pull early in his prime ministership – it would have looked like a catch-up exercise if he had done it in a year or so’s time.
What Cameron now has to do, apart from continuing with efforts he has already started to mend fences with Pakistan, is to show that the substance that was hidden behind the headlines really can produce increased trade and investment – and that will be much more difficult.