John Elliott: British Ministers Run Into a Brick Wall in India

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British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond shakes hands with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi, on March 12, 2015. John Elliott writes that the U.K. no longer rates as one of India’s leading foreign relationships, and the British ministers visiting in the hope of making trade deals post-Brexit made little impression. Adnan Abidi/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Three British Cabinet ministers, plus the governor of the Bank of England and two other government ministers, trooped through India just before Easter in a seemingly desperate bid to drum up support from their largest former colony as Brexit looms—and before, following today's announcement, they start campaigning for the U.K.'s June 8 general election.

They were well received by the Indian government, but the U.K. no longer rates as one of India's leading foreign relationships, and they made little impression outside their formal meetings. This revived memories of visit splurges staged to little effect by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Two prominent investment bankers in Mumbai said "zero" and "none" when I asked about the impact of the visit by Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, who brought Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, with him. "I didn't know they were here," said the head of a large business group.

Shashi Tharoor, a provocative Indian member of Parliament, author and former top United Nations official, seems, by contrast with the ministers, to have made much more impact in the U.K., where last month he was publicizing his best-selling book, Inglorious Empire, which castigates the British for what he sees as its cruel and economically debilitating rule in India.

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The comparison may appear unfair, but Tharoor has kicked off a debate about Britain's failure to acknowledge its misdeeds. His book, titled An Era of Darkness, in its original Indian edition, has sold over 40,000 copies since it was published last November, making it the top title for Aleph, its publisher.

Tharoor has suggested that Britain should apologize for plundering the Indian economy and for horrors such as the Amritsar massacre in 1919 of hundreds of nonviolent protesters and pilgrims.

There is a Brexit link with Tharoor's lucid and sometime passionate arguments because he is stirring up anti-colonial memories just as Britain is hoping that the 52 Commonwealth former colonies will give it a special welcome when it comes to negotiate bilateral trade deals.

There is even talk of a surely improbable multilateral deal with the Commonwealth, an international association that achieves little but is seeking new roles for its biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting assembly in London early next year.

The risk is that Tharoor is stirring up post-colonial angst that could generate tougher trade deal negotiations and even opposition to Britain. That seems unlikely to happen in India, which is much more concerned with U.K. visa problems faced by Indian businessmen and students.

The British civil service has not helped by dubbing its Commonwealth ambitions as Empire 2.0 (initially for an Africa free trade zone). The Times has reported that the title was coined by skeptical officials worried about the high priority being given by ministers to trade deals with Commonwealth nations, but it is now being seen as misplaced old imperial ambition.

The British ministers' visits to India were mostly focused on meetings of annual "dialogues" on specific subjects. They were also reported in the U.K. to be part of a drive called by Theresa May for ministers to spend the Easter break selling Britain abroad. Liam Fox the trade minister, toured Southeast Asia, and May went to the Middle East (West Asia).

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Arun Jaitley, India's finance minister, gave Hammond and his colleagues a good reception, saying that the U.K. was "looking at a different kind of relationship with India" and there was "a huge aspiration in India itself also to add to and improve upon that relationship." The talks would take the relationship to "an entirely different level," said Jaitley, using a stock Indian expression that usually means little, if anything.

Two-way merchandise trade between India and the U.K. has fallen in recent years to around $14 billion, though both countries are among the top three investors in each other's economy.

Part of Hammond's focus was on expanding services trade, especially financial services, building on rupee-dominated "masala bonds" that were launched in London last year to raise funds for India's infrastructure. He offered financing for India's "Make in India" campaign, though that project's problem is less to do with finance than finding foreign companies that will generate manufacturing jobs.

Related: Theresa May's India mission shows brand Britain is losing its edge

These were good workman-like talks but scarcely justified the sudden mass of ministerial visits, nor the strange attachment of the Bank of England governor, who is supposedly independent of government and could have made a splash on his own.

Also with Hammond was Commercial Secretary Baroness Neville-Rolfe and International Trade Minister Mark Garnier, plus, on a separate energy mission, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark.

The final minister was probably the most focused, though his main aims were long term. Michael Fallon, the defense secretary, brought a posse of army and air force officers and set his sights on developing design and manufacturing relationships, with the prospect of the sort of high technology transfer that India wants.

He also offered to advise India on how to improve and reform its massive defense establishment, explaining in great detail how Britain had transformed its over-large and inefficient operations.

He also talked about new orders for Britain's Hawk trainer jet, which is assembled in India, and for a more advanced version, though the U.K. has been less successful than the U.S., Russia and France in gaining major orders in recent years. A recent $737 million contract for 145 howitzer artillery guns placed with Britain's BAE Systems went to the group's American company.

Vijay Mallya's Extradition

From Delhi, it is difficult to see what has been achieved with the special pleading by these ministers. Indeed, the arrest (and bailing) in London today of Vijay Mallya, the absconding liquor and airline tycoon, as the first step toward his extradition to India will make far bigger headlines than the ministers' visits.

The extradition, providing it goes through before or after the general election, will be seen as a significant gesture by the U.K., which has never agreed in the past to extradite anyone to India. That's real action and beats a flood of visiting ministers.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).

John Elliott: British Ministers Run Into a Brick Wall in India | Opinion