Summer in London is that time of the year when everyone from India is floating around the place. It’s also inbound Visits season. When Indian dignitaries come calling on their friends and contacts in London.
This year, there’s clearly a lot more excitement in the air, given that there’s a brand new government in UK. Over the past few weeks, half a dozen Indian Cabinet ministers have dropped in and out of London, making friends with their new counterparts.
What’s interesting everyone is that David Cameron is breaking seasonal protocol —outbound Visits season is winter — and planning to go on a grand state visit to India later this month — along with half his cabinet.
Apparently, he’s taking along chancellor to the exchequer George Osborne, secretary of state Vince Cable, maybe foreign secretary William Hague, and a ginormous business and media delegation.
You understand that none of this is official — last I talked to anyone in government they’re muttering about protocols. As an aside, one gets security concerns, but all governments tend to be pointlessly pernickety about being hush-hush.
Given the vast number of people involved in this exercise, virtually everyone who’s anyone on the south Asia circuit here — and south Asia includes Pakistan — is involved in some way, and stuff leaks into the press everyday.
That’s neither here nor there, though. It’s been made more than amply clear, that the Con-Lib government is super-keen to improve its relationship with India, what with announcements in the manifesto and Queen’s speech et al.
People in the know assure me it’s seriously top priority for the coalition. Minister Anand Sharma, who spent some time with Mr Cameron, describes it as ‘zeal in discussions’.
Now that UK is grappling with massive spending cuts at home, and its main trading partners US and Europe are in bad shape, everyone’s realised that if there’s any growth to be got, the British private sector needs to drastically export a lot more to the growing markets in India and China, and get their fingers into those pies.
What’s left most of the Indian side — and, therefore, us commentators — scratching our heads is exactly how all this is supposed to be any different from Labour’s policies.
As I’m not bothered with political gaffes made by David Milliband or not, and because the crux of this burning desire for UK-India bhai-bhaiis economics and trade, that’s always been top priority. Or so I’ve been told ad nauseum for the past four years, even though the Queen may not have mentioned it in parliament.
The new powers that be are pointing out that specifically in the case of India, despite historic ties and some growth, bilateral trade is not quite what the Chancellor would have liked to have in his kitty.
Call me a sceptic, but that’s precisely what poor old Mr Gordon Brown used to say every year, that Indo-UK trade clearly wasn’t up to the desired mark. UK-India bilateral trade is, depending on what statistics you use, around £11.5 billion.
By any standards, a drop in the ocean, around 1-2 percentage points of UK’s total trade. UK’s trade with China, if I’m not mistaken, is around £30 billion. That’s despite at least a couple of dozen trade promotion bodies — just listing the acronyms of the various agencies, quangos and initiatives would use up my allotted space.
Gordon Brown, ticked off with the poor growth rates, ordered a huge reshuffle among all these agencies some three years ago. It led to a nice eye-catching flurry of activity, people opened up India offices, but obviously the numbers still haven’t moved significantly.
This time around, the Indian side is waiting and watching to see if the Con-Libs manage to convert their enthusiasm into real business.
Take FDI. Minister Anand Sharma told us that Indian FDI into UK is cumulatively $18 billion. UK FDI into India, ditto, is $28.9 billion. (There are various statistics floating around the system, but I’m sticking to the official Indian one).
Of this, if you minus $11-odd billion for one Vodafone-Hutch deal alone, Indian business has invested more in UK than British companies have in India, over the years.
It seems that despite any amount of coaxing, hand-holding and rather vast sums of my tax money going to encourage them along, British private sector businessmen remain curiously reluctant to go out and grab a slice of the Indian market.
To those of us who work perched on that cross-border no-man’s land that is the Indo-UK circuit, the why is fairly obvious — I could write a treatise on it, but more on that later. And no, it’s got nothing to do with Doha, EU-India FTAs, liberalisation of Indian financial services, or any of that stuff.
That’s not what innumerable Brit entrepreneurs and businesses tell me, that’s what the most vocal local industry lobbyists tell their own government, and then that’s what you get to hear.
Me, I’m all for headline state visits. They’re like a romantic holiday time-out for old married couples, gives a feel-good adrenaline rush to tired relationships.
But if Mr Cameron really wants to convert that into trade numbers with India, he’s going to need a dramatically-new strategy. Or like Mr Brown, his good intentions may, to quote Tagore, “lose their way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit”. As of now, we don’t know if he has one.
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