The new British prime minister is right to start with trade and right to start with Bangalore
Most commentators are putting it mildly, but the numbers show that India-UK trade atrophied in the last decade. From being India’s third largest trading partner at the beginning of this decade, the UK is now the thirteenth, and falling perhaps. Even as India’s overall trade volumes grew at around 26% on an average over the last four years, Britain’s share of the total trade has dropped—from 3.72% in 2004-05 to 2.56% in 2008-09. The growth in absolute numbers, from $7.2 billion to $12.5 billion during the same period masks the marginalisation of Britain as an economic partner.
Mr Cameron hopes to change that trend. The good news is that he has not only arrived in India with a large delegation but also with changed mindset. His government’s decision to remove dogmatic hurdles to trade in civilian nuclear technology and set up a framework for joint research & development in the field exemplifies this. As the British prime minister reminds us in his op-ed in The Hindu:
Beyond the cultural bonds, Britain has practical attractions for India. We speak the world’s language. We are still the world’s sixth largest manufacturer and the best base for companies wanting to do business in Europe. We have some of the best universities in the world and we are a great hub for science and innovation. Britain still has the strengths of its history, not least our democracy, rule of law and strong institutions, but there is also the modern dynamism of the nation that helped pioneer the internet, unravel the DNA code and whose music, films and television are admired the world over. All of these things can mean opportunity for Indian investors and entrepreneurs. [The Hindu]
If Mr Cameron follows through it is likely that he’ll succeed in turning the trade game around. But there’s a deeper, more fundamental reason why there is promise in economic relations between the two countries. Britain is grappling with rising costs of public services and tightening public finances. It will find that India provides the way out of the jam if the “outsourcing” partnerships can be managed well. That is the reason why Mr Cameron did well to start in Bangalore (okay, the beer and Amrut Fusion Single Malt are equally good reasons).
Geopolitics, though, can be a spoiler. The abominable David Miliband has not been forgotten. The Cameron government would do well to steer clear of that kind of gratuitous sanctimony.
Update: In Bangalore, Mr Cameron’s speech in Bangalore will do much to undo the damage Miliband did.