Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Turning from London to Paris: The visits of Cameron and Hollande

What is striking about the back-to-back visits of President Francois Hollande of France and Prime Minister David Cameron of UK is their differing texture. Hollande's visit spoke of the future, a French pivot to South Asia, if you will.
But Cameron seems to be stuck in a groove of the past, which is best encapsulated by an essay in The Economist titled "Ties that no longer bind" with a strap-line "David Cameron returns to Delhi more as a supplicant than a benefactor."
Nothing could sum up the hopelessness of the visit better than news reports, quoting the British Prime Minister's Office, suggesting that one of the British leader's objectives was to press India to purchase the Eurofighter Typhoon as its medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).


This is somewhat curious because the contest for the MMRCA is over and the French Dassault Rafale has won and is currently negotiating its price and other terms with New Delhi. For the record, the Indo-French joint statement after the Hollande visit noted: "Both sides noted the ongoing progress of negotiations on the MMRCA programme and look forward to their conclusion." This does not leave much room for doubt. Cameron will have his hands full in explaining the AgustaWestland deal, currently mired in charges of corruption.
To go by what has been written up on the visit, Cameron's agenda seems fairly straightforward - promoting trade. But there is little that Britain produces that India may want to import, and, perhaps, vice versa.
This does not mean there are no products that could be traded, but that British companies are not geared to export in the manner of small and middle companies in France and Germany. Since Britain is big in services, there will be a lot of effort on the part of UK to push for opening up of the financial services and retail sector, but these are areas where India wants reciprocity, on issues such as the ease of movement of skilled personnel. Anyway, India is in an election mode and will not take any significant decision here.
Defence goods remains an area of interest. The now troubled AgustaWestland company could have been the source of a great deal of more business - multi-role and utility helicopters for the Indian Navy were on the anvil. The Indian experience with the Hawk trainer has not been particularly good. However, given India's needs, Britain remains an important player here.
Even so, as The Economist essay suggests, ties between UK and India are sliding. The most potent indicator of this is the sharp decline in Indian students wanting to study in UK. According to a report, enrolments fell from 39,090 in 2010-11 to 29,900 in 2011-12.
Changes in UK visa regulations are responsible in some measure for this, as well as the decision to restrict the right of foreign students to work in the UK after getting their degrees. Despite reassuring noises from Cameron, things are not likely to change.


There are other problem areas in the India-UK engagement. Principal among these is Afghanistan and by extension, Pakistan. Britain has been playing a major behind-the-scenes role in promoting tripartite talks between the Western coalition, Afghan government and Pakistan to work out a mutually acceptable arrangement with the Taliban, while Western forces are still in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, Cameron hosted a summit meeting in London with Pakistan President Asif Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. There are worries in New Delhi that such a deal would be Pakistan-centric and freeze out its interests in the region.
This subject is bound to be discussed in the meetings between PM Manmohan Singh and Cameron, but the British are working on lines that leave little comfort for New Delhi.


The contrast in New Delhi's growing ties with France could not be more apparent. The Rafale deal offers the potential to create a network of relationships that will have a major influence in the development of India's defence R&D and industrialisation.
Note that India is already manufacturing the Scorpene submarine of French design. If India can overcome the post-Fukushima shock to the nuclear power industry and its perennial land-acquisition problems, it could see much greater cooperation in the civil nuclear field with France, the only country that says it has no real problem with its liability laws.
Equally, the French presence in the Indian Ocean, by virtue of the French territories there, form the basis of closer naval ties in the future.
More important, perhaps is the common world view that undergirds the relationship. Britain remains unsure of its position vis-àvis Europe, leave alone with India.
Despite economic troubles, there is little self-doubt in France, as its recent commitment to Mali indicates. It is the dominant political voice of the continent, and it sees itself as an independent pole in the world order, much as New Delhi views itself.
The Indo-French relationship speaks to the future, whereas in the case of UK, there seems to be longing for the past. Given the bountiful Indo-British past, this could be the basis of a munificent future. But somehow that is not coming across, at least at this juncture.
Actually this is a good opportunity to re-look at India's larger policies towards Europe, which has been in the throes of an economic crisis, and is itself being compelled to restructure and retrench, not just in its economy, but its social and political perspectives.
There are political opportunities for India to shape future relations, as well as economic ones. India could, for example, look for acquisitions in Europe's high technology companies.
While our private sector has been active here, our state-owned sector, especially in defence, remains unreconstructed. They continue to behave like compradores intent on serving the interest of foreign companies, rather than yoking them to Indian needs.
Mail Today February 20, 2013

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