By Lord Jitesh Gadhia
THE publication of David Cameron’s long-awaited memoirs last week could not have come at a more awkward time for the former British prime minister.
Cameron bided his time for more than three years, hoping that the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum – which prompted his resignation – would have been resolved. A Brexit settlement would have allowed a more sober and objective analysis of his six years as prime minister and 11 years as Conservative party leader.
Instead, the release (planned many months ago) falls in the middle of the most serious political and constitutional crisis which the UK has faced since the Second World War.
Judging from the visceral reaction from many quarters, it currently feels like Cameron’s legacy will forever be overshadowed by Brexit, in the same way as another former prime minister, Anthony Eden, remains inextricably associated with the Suez Crisis.
As someone who had the privilege of working closely with Cameron, his efforts to build a modern partnership with India deserve more charitable treatment from historians. Throughout his tenure, Cameron did more than any other holder of his office to reach out proactively to India, as an emerging superpower, and to recognise the outsized contribution made by over 1.5 million members of the British Indian diaspora.
Cameron signalled his clear geopolitical priority from the outset, choosing India for the first major visit overseas after his election in 2010. He visited India on three separate occasions during his premiership, often leading large trade delegations encompassing not just business interests but the whole spectrum of political, educational, scientific and cultural relations which connect the world’s largest and oldest democracies. He also became the first serving prime minister to visit Amritsar and express his regrets at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial for the “deeply shameful event in British history” in 1919.
It is clear that Cameron had a more expansive world view and an appreciation of the rise of emerging economies, especially in Asia. In the memoirs, he admits: “We couldn’t afford to carry on obsessing about Europe and America while ignoring the fresh forces that were shaping our world.”
It is quite telling how, in over 700 pages, Cameron is almost more effusive about the importance of India than the historic special relationship with the US. Unlike the current Trumpian doctrine which views global cooperation as a ‘zero-sum game’, Cameron understood the opportunity of harnessing the aspirations of India’s young population to build shared prosperity.
Cameron was also sensitive to being “tinged with colonial guilt” and sought to build a genuine partnership of equals.
These intentions were backed up by appointing a minister for business engagement with India, who worked across different government departments; and a diaspora champion in the form of Priti Patel MP. Indeed, Cameron describes the diaspora as the “greatest weapon” in the UK’s engagement with India, and elsewhere refers glowingly to the contribution of Ugandan Asians, helping to make Britain “the most successful multiracial democracy on earth”. Cultivating the British Indian community provided a double benefit – both political and diplomatic – and explains why Cameron was a regular visitor to mandirs, gurdwaras and mosques and attended other community events.
The Asian Media Group, publishers of Eastern Eye, hosted some of the most high-profile of these events, including the 2014 GG2 Leadership Awards and a Diwali celebration the same year, when Cameron officially launched the Encyclopaedia of Hinduism in the presence of Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati.
Samantha Cameron adorned a sari specially for the occasion and, indeed, the memoirs include a photograph of the couple attending a Vaisakhi celebration during the 2015 general election, with Samantha again dressed appropriately in a salwar kameez. This election also provided a British first – a campaign song in Hindi which went viral, including video footage of these events.
In November 2015, having won that election with an outright majority, Cameron went to great lengths to welcome India’s prime minister Narendra Modi on his first official visit to the UK. During the visit, Modi addressed a rare joint session of Parliament, travelled up the River Thames that was lit up in the colours of the Indian flag, and was received in Downing Street. Modi was also a guest at the official country retreat of Chequers and served with specially prepared vegetarian food.
However, the high point was undoubtedly the event in front of a 60,000 strong crowd at Wembley Stadium, referenced in the memoirs as “the largest-ever gathering of the Indian diaspora in the UK” where Modi received a rousing reception. Cameron obliged with a strong endorsement of Modi, amplifying his election slogan in Hindi: achche din zaroor aayenge and was “hugged on stage”.
This cemented the personal chemistry, always important between world leaders. Even Manmohan Singh is mentioned in the book as a “saintly man” who was “robust on the threats India faced” and who told Cameron that if another terrorist attack like that in Mumbai in July 2011 was repeated, then India would have to take military action against Pakistan.
So the most revealing aspect of the book is Cameron’s deep understanding of the terrorist threat which emanates from across InIndia’s border. He describes the AfAfghanistan-Pakistan border as the “motherlode” of Islamist extremism, and in a fascinating section, describes his attempts to build greater trust between Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and former Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, hosting them both at Chequers in 2013. He laments the lack of breakthrough and says of Pakistan “as we know, it is the military that makes the key decisions”.
This perhaps explains why Cameron broke with Foreign Office convention during his visit to Bangalore in 2010 to address IT workers at the Infosys campus. Responding to a question, he said unequivocally: “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.” This clarity, conviction and courage explains why Cameron is so well respected in India.
His successor, Boris Johnson, is also an Indophile. Whether he will be able to make the same impact as Cameron will depend partly upon how he handles the vexed question of Brexit, but also, crucially, on whether he is prepared to take a similarly principled position against cross-border terrorism.
The biggest lesson from Cameron is that a balanced view on the politics of the Indian subcontinent is no view at all.