Alex Hickman worked for David Cameron as a foreign affairs advisor in 2006/7, and organised David Cameron and George Osborne’s visit to India in 2006. He was previously Chief Executive of the cross-party ‘no’ campaign opposing UK membership of the euro; and Open Europe, the independent think-tank on the future of the EU. He conclues here that unlocking a strategic relationship with India won’t be easy, and David Cameron’s salesmanship will be sorely tested, but that the prize is worth the fight.
This week the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers, including George Osborne, William Hague and Vince Cable, will lead a delegation of business leaders across India in an unprecedented attempt to transform one of Britain’s most important bilateral relationships.
David Cameron has been to India before. In September 2006 he visited Pune, Mumbai and Delhi on his first official trip as Conservative Leader, pledging to build a ‘special relationship’ with Britain’s former colony. The five day trip holds happy memories: he and the Chancellor, then both new to the international scene, impressed their hosts, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Ratan Tata. On the eve of their departure to the airport, while the party chatted in the drawing room of the High Commissioner’s Residence, thousands of miles away New Labour finally imploded. Tony Blair, the biggest obstacle to a Conservative election victory, had unexpectedly announced he would step down during a routine visit to a London school. As the news came through an elated Cameron clapped Osborne and Steve Hilton on the back. Gordon Brown would soon be in Number Ten, and Cameron knew he could beat him.
This time the Prime Minister will have to make his own luck. The air space over Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport has become crowded with world leaders in search of a strategic dialogue with the world’s largest democracy. “I firmly believe that the relationship between the United States and India will be a defining partnership in the 21st century," President Obama announced in June; one third of his cabinet has already visited India and he is expected in Delhi in November.
“We should bolster our relationship not as an end in itself, but with a real sense of purpose" declared EU High Representative Catherine Ashton as she prepares for the 11th EU-India summit in October. Australia, a key Indian Ocean power, has strengthened its diplomatic presence, prompting Prime Minister Singh to declare an upgrade in relations “to the level of a strategic partnership”. Keen to manage expectations in the face of stiff competition, Number Ten now wisely talks about achieving an ‘enhanced partnership’ with India.