David Cameron’s trip to India is the biggest diplomatic gamble of his premiership. He’s packed a plane with the cream of the cabinet and British business. It’s a bold play, but there’s a clear danger of overreaching. Here are some elephant traps for team Cameron:
1. Kashmir The quickest way to turn a charm offensive into a diplomatic fiasco. The basic rule: British ministers should say nothing. Don’t dare criticise, offer to help, or link bringing peace to tackling terrorism. Stray words have consequences. Just ask Robin Cook, Jack Straw, David Miliband and the Queen. Harold Wilson was also given the silent treatment by Indira Ghandi after giving some unsolicited advice on Pakistan. This isn’t just a Labour problem. Sayeeda Warsi, minister without portfolio, has already had a scrape with the Indian media for having the temerity to suggest that Britain should “play its due role” bringing peace to Kashmir. The Foreign Office didn’t show much sympathy for her views.
2. Poverty Terrible. More poor people than anywhere on earth. But not worth mentioning too loudly. Talk about the New India instead. Mention the aid review. A patronising tone is fatal. Definitely don’t say anything like this: “Parts of Soweto look like a paradise compared to that [Delhi slum].” Or this, from the same UK opposition leader: “This is the real contrast. You can see in the background the big buildings of new India, the smart financial centre. But here is a reminder of how deep the poverty is in this country….the huge squalor.” It may be right. But probably not wise to repeat it, prime minister.
3. Coming over too fresh The young, dynamic, no-nonsense version of Cameron should probably be left behind. It’s time to learn some manners. Indian politicians are, as a rule, double his age and four times as grand. If the meetings are stuffy, formal, overbearingly polite, that’s a good thing. Don’t get fresh. As one veteran British diplomat on the subcontinent told me, the stock advice to visiting ministers is “reach a point when you feel you are over-doing the flattery, and then double it”.
4. Vince speaking his mind He’s on best behaviour. But if there’s one cabinet minister to watch, it’s Vince Cable. Put aside the arms sales (a favourite Lib Dem hobby). He has personal history with India. He’s a strong opponent of the caste system, not least because his first wedding was boycotted by his outraged in-laws of Indian origin. His son is now involved a social enterprise for dalits – those formerly known as “untouchables”. On his last visit to India with a top level delegation, he was repeatedly blocked from visiting it by Indian officials.
5. The immigration cap A big issue for the Indian elite. Anand Sharma, the commerce minister, raised his “concerns” earlier this month with Cameron himself. A heavily bureaucratic and stingy visa regime will not encourage Indians to work or study in Britain. In the words of Jo Johnson, the Tory MP, former FT South Asia editor and Westminster blog star: “the US is genuinely throwing open its doors to Indian entrepreneurs, creating a pool of entrepreneurial talent there which we certainly should envy. I think there is a contradictory message to a certain extent. We need to be competing for the Indian entrepreneurial classes. We must encourage them to come and invest here.”
Points 4 and 5 have both come to pass. Vince has risked opening a new split within the coalition by admitting that he wants to have a more liberal immigration policy:
“It’s no great secret that in my department and [for] me personally, we want to see… as liberal an immigration policy as it’s possible to have.”
Vince was talking to Indian reporters on the tarmac at Heathrow.
Here is a transcript of their exchange, courtesy of Paul Waugh:
“Balancing these two things isn’t easy – all countries, including India, have this problem. But I think the simple answer to your question is that we are sensitive to concerns which Indian businesses have expressed to us – they’re not the only country where there is concern about this – and we are arguing, within government, about how we create the most flexible regime we can possibly have, but in a way that reassures the British publicREPORTER: “Two of the decisions taken by the new government are on development aid to India and any other country, and the immigration cap. Is Britain willing to negotiate on those two with India?”
CABLE: “I don’t think they are, and I don’t think the Indian authorities would regard these as negotiating issues.
“But we obviously have to listen to any Indian concerns on the matter – and we do. I have met Indian businessmen in the UK who express concerns about this, and they are not the only ones.
“So if we are going to attract more foreign investment, foreign companies coming here – whether they’re Indian, Japanese, American, Korean or whatever – then clearly inter-company transfers of people, access to high-level manpower: these have to be respected. This is a point the Indians are making to us, and they’re right to make it.
“It’s no great secret that in my department and me personally, we want to see an open economy, and as liberal an immigration policy as it’s possible to have. We believe that, because it’s good for growth and good for the British economy.
“But we’re trying to reconcile two different objectives, one of which is to reassure the British public that immigration is under control, and the other is to have an open economy where we can bring in talents from around the world.