Indo-British relations have been on the upswing for some years now. A broad political consensus appears to have been reached in both countries to have strong and deep ties with each other. This has also been the feature of David Cameron government—a coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party. Prime Minister Cameron had visited India in July last year with one of the “largest-ever” trade delegation in his attempt to strengthen economic and trade between the two countries and make UK the “partner of choice” for India. A number of senior leaders and delegations have since visited each other’s country to strengthen the ties further. Jeremy Browne, the young minister of state at the foreign and commonwealth office, is a Lb-Dem MP from the Tauton Deane constituency, which may be known to Indians as the home of Somerset, the famous English cricket country team. Browne says he relaxes by watching Somerset play cricket at the County Ground and suffers regular frustrations of being a Queens Park Rangers supporter. He visited Delhi and Kolkata recently and spoke to Pranay Sharma on his visit and the issues before the two countries. Below are the excerpts from the interview.
What brings you to India?
I am the minister in the foreign office who deals with Latin America, Southeast Asia—countries like Japan, China etc. But we had a reorganization of the responsibilities within our ministerial team a couple of months ago. The minister who was previously responsible for India… I took the responsibility from him. So this is my first opportunity to come to India. That was a technical answer. But the longer answer is that Britain wants to have stronger, deeper relations with India. The world is changing so rapidly, particularly Asia is now widely in prominence driven by economic factors but coming as a result of that are political and cultural factors. India is central to that change. So the question is how we adjust to the huge changes that are taking place in the world. Even 20 or 22 years ago, the world order was dominated by the G-8 countries. But that is now changing. So today we have the G-20 structure and if you look around you will find most of the economic development is happening in Asia.
So increasing your staff strength is part of that?
Absolutely, we had a big internal discussion within our foreign affairs department last year about how we would align all diplomatic resources to deal with the changing world. And that is a political decision not just an administrative decision. The world where you choose to place your people is a pretty clear indication of where you think you need to have the greatest degree of influence. We have decided to put more money on India and China. There is now going to be a refocus on China, India and Brazil.
So that is now the trend?
That’s a reality as our foreign secretary said that nobody in 10 years' time is going to criticize us for under-estimating or over-estimating the rise of China and India. We want to be in a position where we are not waiting for those changes to take place but we are trying to anticipate them. So if there are opportunities for British business to invest in big Indian cities then we need to have a team that understands the business and the political environments cities now. So when our business people will say I will do something in Kolkata or Hyderabad then we already got the people on the ground and we know what is going on. For that matter, Indian business houses, when they think of opening an office in an European city, may be we can tell them and make a compelling case to them.
Is this the general view among the business community in UK? Are they eager to move in to India?
It is interesting that if you had asked a British businessman 30 or 40 years where do you go to make your fortune he would say let’s go west to the US and if you ask people now, they will say let’s go east. This frustrates people in Latin America. Of course there is Brazil and other emerging powers outside Asia but most of the focus is now moving east. It is looking at Asia as the engine of global growth and opportunities for business. Within that, to be honest more are going to China than to India. Sure India is seen as an opportunity and people are coming to India but Chinese growth is greater and Chinese economy is bigger. I think it is a task for India as to how to make sure that European investment that are going into Asia come to the country. But India has to make a compelling pitch to businesses that are planning to come to Asia.
Is this hesitancy on part of foreign investors because of the existing checks-and-balances in India that slows down the process?
I am not sure of this hesitancy. But the level of investment that is coming in has been there for may be more than a decade. But what can make it even greater and stronger, in a nut shell; the checks-and-balances are a strength of India. One who is looking at India will say well, what is on the plus side for India — it’s a democracy, developed civic society, free speech, free media, rule of law, established business practices, all of that. All those are positives and there are lot of countries in Asia that will not be able to make the same claim. Then there are a lot of things culturally: English is spoken widely, playing cricket, I don’t what that is. But all the business people who are coming will say that India is a place where they feel safe about their investments. On the other side of the line is a constant theme that come up is that things take too long to happen. Decision making process, though it needs to have checks-and-balance is more cumbersome than it needs to be. There are some problems with corruption, it may be there also in other countries but they are concerns for businesses and also concerns about the lack of infrastructure. If you compare the average Chinese airports and the drive-ins to the city centres with the average Indian ones you can see the Chinese have spent more on infrastructure.
So one of the major attractions for investors is infrastructure? Because the things that you listed —democracy, English speaking or cricket playing nation—China does not have them, so then what attracts investors to China?
I guess you will have to ask the business people. But, I think some of that is rapid decision making. It is in certain ways easier to have rapid decision-making when you have state-directed economic planning. India which has the checks-and-balances proves to be a greater long-term success because irregularities and problems are debated more openly and may end up having solid economic foundations that way. You can believe in democracy and checks and balances but if your company needs cash flow, which is better than not getting paid for 10 months for work that has been done. That process sort of slows down investors. India is a huge market which is growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year and there are a lot of opportunities for business. But if you are making a rational decision and you say well, in this country I don’t get paid for 10 months and there is that country where I get paid pretty quickly for my work then that’s one of the considerations that you will have to take into account.
Why did you go to Kolkata? It does not usually figure in the travel destination of visiting leaders?
There are some general and specific reasons. The size and population of India is not just a contact and engagement between central government to central government or a London-Delhi relationship, it is a much wider relationship. West Bengal has a population which is much larger than many European countries, as do many other places in India or China that will have to be seen as places in their own rights. When the foreign secretary comes in he is more likely to come into Delhi and meet ministers here, just as when Indian foreign minister comes to our country he is likely to visit London than any other place. Lot of people go to Mumbai but I am keen that we get into other cities as well. But there is also a sense of a new chapter having started there after 34 years of having one government. This has made people optimistic that may allow them to go into a powerful exhilarated progress. So this opportunity where a British minister gets the chance to go there in less than two months after the state government has been formed, that’s a good chance to take.
It was built in the model of London and the new chief minister has dreams of turning Kolkata into London. Did you get a sense that there is a resemblance between the two cities?
Yes, there are many places in India that do remind me of London. Some buildings, the architectural style and that people also drive on the left side of the road. It rains more in Kolkata at this time of the year. People say to me that West Bengal’s character is quite compatible with the English. For example people of West Bengal have more the British sense of humour than elsewhere in India. I did not crack enough jokes to know about that.
How did you find Mamata Banerjee?
There is an amazing amount of interest in her and her new government. When I went to see her I don’t think I have ever seen so many photographers in my life. There were about 50, 60-70 photographers. I am not flattering myself, but this must be happening to her every day. There seems to be a huge interest in what she does. With a new government coming in after 34 years, you know the expectations of the people are so high and they want to get everything done straight away. And to manage that, where you have a programme on healthcare, education and to attract business to the state—there is a lot on the government’s plate.
Is there any particular area that you are looking at where you can cooperate with the Bengal government? We would like to take this opportunity on infrastructure investments as a lot needs to be done there. There is a lots of British expertise in terms of design and construction, transport management, you know the entire sector of infrastructure —not just the glamorous projects like the airports, but the sewage systems, the water systems. I think that an area where British know-how can play a significant part. We talked about education which gives young people the opportunity to study in Britain or greater relationships between British universities and universities here in India. So, there are quite a lot of areas where we can work on. Let us talk a little about Afghanistan. There is now a roadmap for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. How do you see the situation panning out in that country? The British government has announced the withdrawal of our combat troops by the end of 2015. By then we would be there longer than the First World War and the Second World War combined. So when people ask why you are leaving prematurely, they should realize that it has been a long haul. But we are still several years from that. But we want to make sure that there civilian structures are in place that makes Afghanistan stable and successful.
What about bringing in the Taliban? Talks have already begun with them. So what kind of Taliban do you see who should be brought in or should there be some kind of precondition before they are brought in? I have not been involved personally in the Afghanistan policy so I won’t have the details. But what you need to have is a political settlement that does not compromise on core principles. Namely, it will be unacceptable to go back to a situation in Afghanistan when the Taliban ran the country. So everything is not up for negotiations. There is also no point in Britain and the Americans leaving Afghanistan without civilian structures in place. We are looking for settlements but one that does not compromise with the core principles.
Do you think accepting the Afghan Constitution is part of that?
I wouldn’t like to comment on areas to about which I was not involved.
Could you explain your government’s policy on Libya? You went in there as part of the NATO forces to save civilians but you ended up killing civilians. So what is the end game?
Our view is that, here you have a situation, where we know if you don’t act decisively in the next 48 hours thousands of people are going to be killed by their leader. Can we have the ability to stop that? So it’s quite a big political decision to act but it is also quite a big political decision not to act. In Europe our politicians in the 1990s were inactive about what was then a disintegrating Yugoslavia and later felt guilty that they could have protected thousands of people from being slaughtered. I think the message was also quite important. Here you have Tunisia and Egypt rulers who have been in power for very long time and had an autocratic style, who left when they saw the writing on the wall with reasonable amount of dignity. In Libya, you have a leader who is faced with a similar situation but massacred large number of his opponents where countries like Britain just stood by and let that happen. And his cowered opponent is so suppressed that he could carry on indefinitely. When you are faced with popular indignation the decent thing to do is to accept it and leave. But if you crush people you can rule as long as you want. And this would have sent a signal down the Middle East and the entire Arab world. Faced with such a situation Britain and some other countries had to decide when it comes to the choice—here is a flowering of liberal hope and opportunity against a Big Boot that is trying to crush it. Do we have the courage and imagination to encourage and enthuse that flowering? Of Course the means of doing it is quite controversial in this particular case. So you had to make a decision and obviously protecting the freedom and giving people the ability to make a choice was the greater prize and was felt necessary.
Is there are an endgame in sight?
Well, we hope so. It is not our intention to carry on any longer than we feel is justified. We want a situation where Libyans can choose their own path. What we should not do is to tell them that this is the lesson we have learnt from 150 years: here is how you should do it and there is sort of a template. That is not the approach that we are going to take. We are keen that they form their own institutions and run their own affairs. We would like it to be in the context of an open, liberal society.
Do you see that coming any time soon?
Yes, I hope so but I cannot put an exact date.
Is there a limitation to such intervention? We also have Syria where large numbers of people are being killed by their ruler. What happens then?
I think it is a very fair and reasonable question. The limit is what is possible. People have often said that they pick this country and ask: why not that country? But we say just because you can’t do it in every country does not mean you should do anything. The problem that we have on Syria is that we will not be able to get the support of all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. On Libya, three voted in favour and two abstained. After the Iraq war people had said that President Bush should not have acted without the authority of the United Nations. So we have made great efforts to act within the UN. But then it also restricts you. What it effectively means is that any one of the five of the UN Security Council, and in reality it means China or Russia, has a veto on that type of activity.