Home India News Under Blair, India-Britain ties touched a new high

Under Blair, India-Britain ties touched a new high

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : Quite a few in Britain are happy to see Tony Blair ride into the political sunset after resigning as prime minister but, by various accounts, his decade in office saw India-Britain relations reach a new high since India's independence in 1947.

When Blair assumed office on that sunny May Day in 1997, a tepid chill had set in between India and Britain relations – then prime minister I K Gujral had just described Britain as a "third-rate power" and, after a year, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state.

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook too was critical of India's stand on Jammu and Kashmir and took, what many in India felt, a pronounced pro-Pakistan stance.

Slowly but surely, Indophile Blair presided over not only a sea change in Britain's perception of the Jammu and Kashmir issue, but also steered the relationship towards economic issues. Today, the buzzwords marking the India-Britain relationship are trade, business, information technology, off-shoring, terrorism – and Bollywood.

India has now emerged as one of the top investors in Britain, while every regional development agency is vying with each other to court Indian business and Bollywood producers to come and invest or shoot in their regions. India's perception as the taker of British jobs through off-shoring has changed to creator of jobs in Britain.

Blair was the first G-8 leader to moot the idea of India joining G-8 discussions. At his invitation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the UK on July 7-8 2005 for the "G-8 Plus 5" Gleneagles Summit (India, China, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico). India has since then been a key participant in the deliberations.

As Indian investors flock to London, and British companies set up shop in India, the single-most important symbol of Blair's legacy is the Indian company HCL Technologies, which has been the one of the first foreign investors in Northern Ireland, long before Blair negotiated peace in the region.

HCL's Belfast BPO is small compared to the company's global operations, but it is one of the largest investments in the region, signalling the Indian corporate world's faith in Blair's efforts to wage peace in Northern Ireland.

Of particular significance is the change in policy effected during Blair's premiership on Jammu and Kashmir. From the earlier position that Britain had a moral responsibility to resolve the issue, since 2000, the government has consistently stated that Britain would not arbitrate and that it is for the two sides to sit down and negotiate a solution.

The change in policy got a boost after Sep 11 and July 7 London bombings, and was also visible in the way Britain perceived terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Both Blair and the former foreign secretary Jack Straw condemned the violence, and called for an end to Pakistan's support for terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Blair went on to declare open support to India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Straw acknowledged in parliament that there was a clear link between the Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and terrorist groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir. During a joint press conference with Manmohan Singh in September 2004, Blair condemned any form of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

In his remarks to the press following the Sep 8 2005 summit, Blair acknowledged that the world had been reluctant to recognize the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir as terrorism. He added that whether it was in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir or Chechnya – terrorism should never be compromised with nor ever justified.

At UK-India Summit on Oct 11 2006, Manmohan Singh and Blair reached a political agreement for closer co-operation on counter terrorism, which was taken further forward during the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's visit to India in November. The two countries also agreed to share best practice and planning for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth games and the London 2012 Olympics.

As the March 2006 White Paper outlining the forward plan for British diplomacy put it: "India is an important partner on global economic and political issues including energy and climate change, serious regional crises, and global non-proliferation.

"As the world's largest democracy, India will have a growing influence in international affairs and on the global economy. It will have particular strengths in the service and knowledge sectors, while broadening the base of its growth. We are strong advocates of India gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Our two countries share a modern relationship".

Blair has also led the drive to increase the number of Indian students in British universities, which are now approaching students from small towns in India besides the four metropolitan cities. Several British universities have opened full-time offices in India.

Blair announced the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), which was launched in London on April 18 2006. The first meeting of the India-UK Science and Innovation Council in London on June 2006 endorsed UKIERI and agreed to match the UK's contribution for bilateral research projects.

Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, will be closely watched by India observers. Brown had not visited India until January this year, but has been one of the first British leaders to recognise the challenges and opportunities posed by India's growing economy.