Cameron’s biggest lesson was that a balanced view on politics of the Indian subcontinent is no view at all

Jitesh Gadhia
In this 2015 photo, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, left, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, second right, and Baroness D’Souza, second left, in the chamber as they tour Parliament in London. (AP Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The publication of David Cameron s long-awaited memoirs 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 be resolved. A Brexit settlement would have allowed a more sober and objective analysis of his six years as premiere and 11 years as Conservative Party leader. Instead, the release date (planned many months ago) falls in the middle of the most serious political and constitutional crisis which the United Kingdom 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 British PM, 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 his first major official 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. 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.

It is clear that Cameron had a more expansive world view and an appreciation of the rise of emerging economies, especially in Asia. Unlike the current Trumpian doctrine, which views global cooperation as a zero sum game , he 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, who is now Amit Shah s direct counterpart as Home Secretary serving in Boris Johnson s cabinet. Cameron describes the diaspora as the greatest weapon in the UK s engagement with India. 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. Indeed, his memoirs include a photograph with his wife Samantha, dressed in a shalwar kameez, celebrating Vaisakhi during the 2015 General Election campaign. This election also provided a British first: A campaign song in Hindi, which went viral on social media.

In November 2015, having won that election with an outright majority, Cameron went to great lengths to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his first official visit to the UK. During the visit, Modi addressed a rare joint session of the British Parliament, travelled up the River Thames lit up in the colours of the Indian flag, and was received in Downing Street, decorated in a festive display for Diwali. 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 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 India s border. He describes the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as the mother lode of Islamist extremism and in a fascinating section describes his attempts to build greater trust between 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 normal British Foreign Office convention during his visit to Bengaluru in 2010 to address IT workers at the Infosys campus. Responding to a question, he made an unequivocal statement: 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 but whether he will be able to make the same impact will depend partly upon how he handles the vexed question of Brexit in the coming weeks but also, crucially, on whether he is prepared to take a similarly principled position against cross border terrorism. The biggest lesson from David Cameron is that a balanced view on the politics of the Indian subcontinent is no view at all.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2019 under the title ‘For Boris, cues from Cameron’. The writer is a British Member of Parliament in the House of Lords.