Though New Delhi’s winter is the usual season for state visits, it is nevertheless quite unusual for Raisina Hill to host two members of the UN Security Council within a week of each other, as happened recently with French President Francois Hollande and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. And despite the contrasting tones of Mr Hollande’s maiden low-key visit and Mr Cameron’s unabashedly high-profile one – his second in three years, this time with the largest business delegation any British prime minister has taken abroad ever – the message is the same. Everyone’s rooting for India to develop itself as a credible, counterbalance to China in Asia, where the future of global growth lies.
Mr Hollande’s agenda was transparently limited to two immediate issues that are critical for keeping factories in business in a country where unemployment is almost 11 per cent. One is ensuring that the $20 billion agreement for Dassault to deliver the Rafale medium multi-role combat fighter was intact, and two, securing the supply of government-owned Areva’s reactors for India’s expanding nuclear power programme. Both these are in sectors essential to India’s interest, and Mr Hollande and the New Delhi establishment will hopefully get both deals moving. Mr Cameron, the consummate former PR professional, has harnessed his visit to a much broader purpose. He announced a trip to India around the same time that he suggested a recalibration of Britain’s relations with the European Union and promised an In-Out referendum on EU membership in 2017. The message is unambiguous: there’s a new jewel in the crown on which Britain can rely, the world’s largest democracy and its former colony. The symbolism was almost as strong as the substantive business gains. His first speech was at the Hindustan Unilever headquarters in Mumbai. Then he aligned himself with Bollywood’s popular “socially conscious” actor Aamir Khan. He also promised to ease visa restrictions for Indian businessmen who are increasingly inclined to look East to Southeast Asia; offered to pump £1 million to help fund a feasibility study on the proposed 1,000 km Mumbai-Bangalore industrial corridor, and signed a raft of education-related agreements. He even agreed to intervene in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, now under graft investigations in Italy and India. His regrets for Jallianwala Bagh and firm refusal to return the Kohinoor also sent a message: the Empire, for better or for worse, is dead — long live the ties of colonialism. Messrs Hollande and Cameron may have their own agenda but it is for India to respond in a similar spirit of friendly realism and fulfil a destiny that can only be to its advantage.