There is one Gandhi-sized gap on David Cameron’s programme of visits in India.
Sonia Gandhi suddenly pulled out of a meeting with the prime minister, which was scheduled for this afternoon. The cause is still a mystery. But, at first sight, it does not bode well for the new Anglo-Indian “special relationship”.
Ms Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, is probably the most powerful person in India. Her son Rahul — who was unable to see Mr Cameron because he’s in London — is a prime minister in waiting. Meeting with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is a rite of passage for any visiting dignitary that’s serious about making an impact on India. In New Delhi, personal chemistry is everything, and the Gandhis are the people you need to know.
Is this a snub? It is too early to tell. British officials insist that Ms Gandhi (pictured) cancelled because of unavoidable commitments and was very sorry to be missing Cameron. That explanation is bolstered by her conspicuous absence from the monsoon opening of the parliament earlier this week. But Ms Gandhi has form. She recently gave Henry Kissinger the cold-shoulder because of her unhappiness with something he said more than 30 years ago.
Whatever the cause, no one is under any doubt that it is a blow to leave India without an audience with the Gandhis. There may be a very good excuse. But it certainly seems odd that Rahul Gandhi found himself in London at the moment the biggest British delegation since Indian independence descended on New Delhi. He did, after all, take his good friend David Miliband to spend a night in a poor rural village on his last visit to India.
Ashok Hinduja, the prominent Indian businessman, underlined the importance of relations with the Gandhis to my colleague James Lamont. For the UK to have its voice heard louder, Mr Hinduja said there had to be closer top level contact between British leaders and Sonia Gandhi. “There has to be an understanding that the UK feels that India is a power to be reckoned with,” he said. “The time is right.”
One last thought. The Gandhis are champions of the rural poor who always make a point not all of India is benefiting from super fast growth. Cameron, on the other hand, wants to engage with the new, prosperous India and is likely to cut Britain’s foreign aid contribution in future. The difference in outlook will make for a fascinating discussion, whenever they do meet.