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Last updated: February 19, 2013 3:15 pm
David Cameron was reminded of the occasionally spiky side to UK-Indian relations on Tuesday, as Manmohan Singh, Indian premier, publicly raised bribery allegations over a helicopter contract and criticised Britain’s visa policy.
Mr Cameron had to endure an awkward New Delhi press conference as Mr Singh said he had “very serious concerns” over claims that bribes were paid in a 2010 contract awarded to AgustaWestland to supply 12 VIP helicopters.
Mr Cameron sought to put the focus on Finmeccanica, the Italian parent company, which owns the Yeovil site in Somerset where the aircraft were made.
But Mr Singh, who is threatening to cancel the contract, said he was seeking “assistance from the UK in this case”. He has demanded a full explanation from the company by February 22.
The British prime minister, on the second day of a visit to India, promised full co-operation but said Britain had perhaps the toughest anti-bribery laws in the world.
Although both leaders extolled what Mr Cameron called “a very special partnership”, Mr Singh’s comments confirmed a spikier side to bilateral relations.
Mr Singh, frustrated by Britain’s visa regime, called on Mr Cameron to introduce a system that “facilitates greater movement between our two countries”.
While the British leader promised in Mumbai on Monday to introduce a “same day” visa service for business people, it falls far short of the visa-free travel regime that UK officials said New Delhi wants.
“That is not going to happen,” said one British official.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron pressed India to liberalise its financial services sector as part of an EU-India free trade deal, which he hopes to conclude within months. However, talks have stalled and there is scepticism on both sides about the likelihood of success.
The British leader has been accompanied by about 100 business leaders on his trip with deals being made on the sidelines behind the high level diplomacy.
British officials said Mr Cameron had given a push to BAE Systems’ efforts to conclude a deal to supply howitzers to the Indian army and again promoted the advantages of the Eurofighter Typhoon over the French-built Rafale.
There were also hopes that India may be close to buying air-to-air missiles built by MBDA UK. Mr Cameron hopes that an agreement can be signed by the middle of the year.
Most people have forgotten [the British] even ruled here, and probably suspect it was the Americans
- Mihir Sharma, Business Standard opinion editor
However, Mr Cameron’s visit – which included a trip to a Delhi college accompanied by Bollywood heartthrob Aamir Khan – has generated little excitement in India, where many newspapers did not even consider it as front-page news.
“Most people have forgotten they even ruled here, and probably suspect it was the Americans,” said Mihir Sharma, opinion editor of the Business Standard, a leading business daily. “They don’t have anything to give us, so why should we care.”
To the extent that he did figure in the minds of most Indians, Mr Cameron appears largely a bit-player in the scandal over alleged corruption over AgustaWestland helicopters, which has gripped the Indians press for the last week.
“I don’t think it sets the city on fire,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a New Delhi-based political commentator, and self proclaimed Anglophile, of Mr Cameron’s visit.
“The overall idea is to make sure Britain returns to India’s map of the world. Even if its low key, it’s well intentioned.”
In a relationship that has very few outstanding contentious issues, he said, concerns about visas have become a “minor irritant”.
But Mr Dasgupta said Mr Cameron has effectively addressed that with his promise that the UK would process Indians applications for business visas in a single day, and not put any cap on student visas.
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