May 30, 2020
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Exit, The Last Of The Sahibs

Political and economic ties between the two nations plunge as squabbling diplomats add to the tension

Exit, The Last Of The Sahibs

SALMAN Haider, Indian High Commissioner to London, is recalled to Delhi. Sir David Gore-Booth, British high commissioner to New Delhi, resigns from service, ostensibly to "pursue a career in the private sector". And post-nuclear tests, London tilts openly towards Islamabad, blaming India for having started the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. It's a string of individual events but, rather like a middle-order collapse, cumulatively they mean only one thing: a mini-crisis.

"We are going through a difficult phase," admits a senior external affairs ministry official, "and the onus for this rests completely with them." London, he says, is "trying to take a higher profile than it needs to, which is definitely not helpful." On the contrary, he adds, "if London had any sensitivity towards bilateral ties, Sir David should have been recalled the day after he waved a newspaper under (former) Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's nose last year, demanding to know if he was being asked to leave."

 Even earlier, the breach was underscored when, in an unprecedented act, Derek Fatchett, the junior minister in the British foreign office, had entertained leaders from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in his office. Then, of course, there's foreign secretary Robin Cook. Stung by the Indian press' reaction to his gaffes during the Queen's visit to India, he found his chance to get back after the May tests. At a meeting of the G-8 to discuss the nuclear tests on the subcontinent, he formed a 'task force'—headed, of course, by him—to oversee the implementation of the sanctions against India and Pakistan. But most observers agree Pakistan was added as an afterthought. And that India was Cook's main target.

Beneath the statements of apparent neutrality, there emerges a pattern. Britain condemns cross-border violations whenever Indian home minister L.K. Advani speaks of cross-border pursuits, or when Indian shelling causes damage in Pakistan. "Both countries have agreed on a number of confidence-building measures in the past to prevent incidents along the line of control. These should now be implemented," said Fatchett last fortnight. Yet no such demands follow when India points to the influx of terrorists from across the border. "These cross-border violations seem to bother them only when there are reports, even false reports, of any firing from the Indian side," remarked an Indian official wryly.

 The convenor of the BJP foreign affairs cell and BJP national executive member, N.N. Jha, is more cautious. "The fact that our high commissioner has been recalled and their high commissioner has quit the service are incidental. Salman was a political appointee, and was recalled. Sir David reportedly had personal reasons. In fact, things were just fine till Pokhran," he says. "The British haven't really understood our security concerns and the fact that we object to nuclear apartheid. However, we hope that they overcome constituency pressures and appreciate our point over the tests as well as Kashmir."

AS for Sir David, he had it coming. Never has a British high commissioner left under such circumstances. Unrepentant about the heat and dust raised in Delhi and London over his gaffes in India, he'd been keen on a Washington or New York posting—both were vacant this summer. Not only was he denied these, he wasn't considered for the post above those—Permanent Under Secretary of State, corresponding to India's Foreign Secretary. If at age 55 the Foreign Office wasn't prepared to consider him for posts that mattered, it was time to go, and he did.

The "class difference" between Sir David and his foreign secretary Robin Cook may have played its part in his final call, feel MEA officials. Sir David is a linear descendant of a huntin', shootin', fishin' peer of the realm—just the kind New Labour is keen to offload from the House of Lords. Cook is a far more Cool Britannia, pulled-myself-up-from-the-bootstraps kind of man. And the twain do not meet. Addressing a press conference on the eve of the Queen's visit to India, Sir David ruffled feathers when he admitted to the "lingering arrogance" of many of his countrymen vis-a-vis India, "perhaps compounded" by the obsequiousness shown by many Indians.

Sir David authored another gaffe by arranging a speech by the Queen in Chennai. India invoked protocol to refuse it. In the media this became the Great Indian Snub to Her Majesty. That it came courtesy Sir David wasn't then acknowledged by the Brits. The acknowledgement comes now.

Oddly, his predicament in some ways paralleled that of the newly-departed Indian high commissioner to London, Salman Haider. Sir David, like Haider, had a problem getting a hearing in Delhi or London. But of the two, Haider seemed to fare better. Haider asked for a meeting in the Foreign Office after his return from Delhi. He was given a date 10 days on. Haider wrote back protesting that he had never, as foreign secretary, kept the British high commissioner waiting. He got the meeting.

Sir David faced greater difficulties. Well-placed sources said foreign secretary K. Raghunath cut him short just as he began a lecture on the Indian nuclear tests by asking if he had cleared his views with Washington. And that was when he had finally obtained access to South Block.

 The former diplomat has had "definite problems with both access and acceptability" in the MEA since the Queen's visit. The Indian government has had political difficulties enough with Cook. But with Sir David, there arose frequent friction in diplomatic channels. With him goes the last of a breed of British diplomats. Sir David liked India, but not in ways that India likes to be liked. He was the last sahib Britain sent to India, as Haider was the last sahib India sent to Britain.

"He insists he is leaving at his own request as he is looking for a new challenge," The Times wrote. "Few will wholly believe him, certainly not in India." Indian diplomats are waiting to see what Sir David now has to say about his Delhi stint. Sir Nicholas Fenn, his predecessor, had some acid remarks to make.

Delhi, he observed, often knows little about the India he had seen on his tours—former PM Deve Gowda had thought him a representative of the Delhi government when he visited Bangalore. It's significant that Sir David left at least partly because New Delhi seemed to have little or no regard for him. And that a new Indian high commissioner to London is in no hurry to arrive. Some diplomatic activity is expected to be created with a new minister for external affairs in New Delhi.

The political differences, particularly after Pokhran, would perhaps not have been so damaging if the economic base to the relations had not been so fragile. But the heady days after the launch of the Indo-British partnership Initiative, launched with much fanfare in 1992 by Sir Nicholas, are clearly over. That was when Douglas Hurd, former foreign secretary, remarked famously that "our instinct and our interests begin to come together. " New British investment in India went up five-fold in one year, and doubled the next.

"Business ties since then have not quite fulfilled the promise of 1992-94," Sir Nicholas told Outlook. "I believe there is a drawing back from the confidence which I hope, I believe, will be temporary." Though Sir Nicholas is still trying to persuade British and multinational companies to invest in India, nothing as dramatic as a joint venture signed every other day for those three years has occurred since. If ties are to grow, Indian officials accept, it will have little to do with them or with British diplomats in India. "If businessmen of the two countries begin to deal with one another, the rest will get sorted out," says an Indian trade official.

But, unless the two countries can get down to business, real business, relations will remain shaky.

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