Major capitalises on opening up of India

WHILE the England team continues its dogged odyssey across Indian cricket pitches despite riots, airline strikes and dodgy tummies, John Major arrives today on his own six-day official tour of India.

It is the first time that a British prime minister is to attend the Republic Day ceremonies, when India's military might and such eccentricites as the army's motorcycle stunt-riding team (seven men wobbling atop an ancient Enfield motorcycle) are displayed in a parade down Raj Path boulevard from the old viceroy's residence to India Gate. Both the British and the Indians, however, hope that Mr Major's visit will be more than merely ornamental.

After more than 40 years of a slammed-shut, socialist economy, India is trying to open itself up to free-marketeering, and the New Delhi government no longer casts a jaundiced eye upon Britain as an overbearing ex-colonial master. Instead, Indians now look upon Britain as a possible entry point for their cheap goods into the European Community. They also want British technology and investment.

Mr Major, in turn, sees India as offering a bonanza for British firms. The Prime Minister is accompanied on his Indian tour by a dozen chairmen of UK companies selling everything from aircraft to cigarettes, chocolate bars to insurance policies. Their eyes are on India's booming middle class, numbering more than 250 million people.

But the Prime Minister may find himself plunged unwittingly into the melee of Indian politics. He will find his Indian counterpart, Narasimha Rao, distracted by infighting within the ruling Congress party and hounded by opposition politicians of the powerful right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who want his resignation and early elections.

Mr Major will find a nation devastated by more than a month of communal fighting between Hindus and Muslims. The clashes have stopped for now, but sectarian violence could re-ignite at any time.

From his privileged seat inside the VVIP grandstand on Raj Path, Mr Major will be surrounded by more people than he has probably ever seen in one place in his life, an ocean of hundreds of thousands of Indians. Few of them, though, will be Muslims.

Infuriated by the failure of the Congress government to prevent Hindu extremists from demolishing the Ayodhya mosque last month, many Muslims have decided to boycott Republic Day. They are flying black flags from their mosques and homes, for they blame Mr Rao for failing to protect India's secular democracy against the rising forces of Hindu nationalism.

It is customary for visiting dignitaries to meet the leader of the Indian opposition party, currently Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP. However, the government has not put him on Mr Major's must-see list. A meeting between the BJP leader and Mr Major would confer upon Mr Advani - who spent more than a month in jail for his role in the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque on 6 December - a legitimacy that the Congress government can ill afford.

Mr Rao's only riposte to the BJP's Hindu zealotry has been to urge Indians to forget about explosive religious issues and concentrate instead on earning more rupees through his government's new reforms.

But these economic changes need to be motored by foreign investors - such as those accompanying Mr Major - and Mr Rao likes to portray his Congress party, and not the communal-minded BJP, as the only saviour for India's lurching economy.

As soon as Mr Major leaves New Delhi, the sheets will be swiftly changed in the Rashtrapati Bhavan guest bedroom for the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. He travels with his own set of Russian entrepreneurs.

In talks with Indian officials, the Prime Minister is also expected to urge New Delhi to resume talks with Pakistan over its dispute in Kashmir. Allegations of human rights violations by Indian security forces in Kashmir may surface in the Prime Minister's talks. The Indians are also expected to resist attempts by Mr Major to coax them to sign the nuclear non- proliferation treaty.

While in India, Mr Major will also visit a British project to help slum-dwellers in Indore, and he will deliver a speech to Indian businessmen in Bombay, the country's financial capital.

The Prime Minister will find a city still recovering from a nightmare of rioting and arson earlier this month that left more than 600 dead and 34,000 homeless. Bombay's destruction, its charred shops and gutted shrines, belie the stability that Mr Rao promises British investors.

Comments