Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Cameron's megaphone diplomacy

We want India to be our new best friend because of its economic might. And we are now expected to refrain from any criticism of that emerging powerhouse
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The audience on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions resoundingly applauded David Cameron for his "straight talk" in Turkey and India.

They liked that a lot: a leader with bite, self-belief to fill a bathtub, who chastises lesser and wayward nations when necessary. Other enthusiasts saw the baby-faced PM as a political Clint Eastwood – shooting from the hip. Sweeping aside diplomatic etiquette and charades, he put the world to right by blasting it.

Though the cheerleaders willed it, millions both inside Britain and abroad didn't feel able to join in the chorus of simple approval. They might have absolutely agreed with the views he expressed – I know I did – yet his words left an odour, released a sense of disquiet. The PM's utterances were imperious, hypocritical, self-serving, damaging, arrogant, and exactly what toff-watchers will have been looking out for.

In Saki's short story "The Baker's Dozen", a major observes, with some accuracy: "You can't expect a boy to be vicious until he's been to a good school." Cameron went to the top school in the country, ergo... And then there is the imperial family legacy, discovered recently in a book found in the British Library. William Low, Cameron's great-great-grandfather, mercilessly cut down scores of Indian mutineers and happily helped hang blameless Indians to warn off future rebels. William's father Sir John Low was with the East India Company – masterful political manipulators and profiteers. These historical connections were not mentioned (for old-fashioned diplomatic reasons) during his visit. Fair enough. The UK wants to move forward, respectfully bury the past.

Only old ways aren't quite dead. How crass of Cameron to criticise Pakistan from India, to ignore the unhealed wounds of a land sliced apart as the Raj ended with blood and tears. He proved that Albion is still wedded to the colonial strategy of divide and rule, and practiced duplicity.

Cameron's bluntness too came from an innate belief in national superiority. Imagine the reactions in this country if, say, Hamid Karzai went to France (our old rival) and sounded off about the Iraq war and how that misadventure had encouraged terrorist recruitment. It would all be true, but would we laud him for his bold, public honesty? I don't think so. Again, what if an Israeli top-gun made a speech in the Emirates, blaming the perpetual regional conflict on the perfidy of the British political elite? Such effrontery would not be tolerated by the nation which ruled the waves and still thinks it is a super-influential power. That world has changed since then, but the delusion carries on. Sure, Cameron's delegation successfully flattered rising India, but that fooled no one, not even in India. Money makes that country matter; history will always make it chary.

Cameron's robust interventions raise other knotty dilemmas. Millions of world citizens, including me, cannot but agree completely with his condemnation of Israel's blockade of Gaza – iniquitous, immoral and inexorably self-defeating. And yet – though I find it hard to type these words – he was wrong to speak out in Turkey. He knew it would uplift his hosts (whose understanding of human rights is only now slowly developing) and puff his own reputation there. It was a cheap PR move, and you don't play that game with one of the most intractable conflicts of our age.

If he really was brave, he should have made the comments in Israel, or in Palestine, or in our own Parliament, where sit so many influential friends of Israel. And he would have acknowledged that the US and UK have armed Israel and handed that state extraordinary privileges so that it feels entitled to do what it does in Gaza and other occupied territories. And he might have rebuked the richest Arab nations, which routinely denounce Israel and yet never substantively help Palestinians.

So on to Pakistan then. Here too, the Tory soundbites, though essentially accurate, were partial and sordidly hypocritical. Though frequently critical of that state (perhaps too frequently) I imagine what Pakistanis must be feeling. Sales deals for the most modern weaponry – meaning most nasty and most capable of instant extermination – have been signed with India. How does that help stabilise that volatile region?

Suicide bombers will line up in ever greater numbers in Pakistan, using their own bodies to fight back. That country's ISI intelligence service undoubtedly cooperates with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as do the top brass from the army. Funded by the US and her allies, they are also fighting the Taliban – indeed looking both ways, as Cameron warns. He neglects to mention that that more Pakistani soldiers have died than the total number of US and British personnel.

Pakistani civilians are killed all the time, by our bombings, by various factions and by insurgents. Last year alone there were over 3,000 innocents wasted. That should matter to our high- minded Cameron. And why did he not candidly accept that our previous interventions unwisely promoted Islamists in Afghanistan, and that the ugly Iraq war radicalised many Pakistanis, including in the UK?

Fair play, I am always told is a British trait. This, Mr Cameron, is not playing fair. And it certainly isn't right that we should slag off Pakistan and offer only endless praise to India.

We want India to be our new best friend because of its economic might. And we are now expected to refrain from any criticism of that emerging powerhouse. I love India, but am alarmed by its complacency and acceptance of inequality. The Indian writer Kishwar Desai, incandescent that her country now gets away with so much, has written a novel about unforgivable gender discrimination. She tells me a hospital in North India officially boasts its selective abortions are so efficient no girls have been born there for years.

As Foreign Secretary in 1985, Geoffrey Howe warned: "Megaphone diplomacy leads to a dialogue of the deaf." He understood the impact of words and the responsibilities of high power. Cameron clearly doesn't, and so we have a deafening cacophony and broken trust. Perhaps tea with the old Tory will bring the PM to speedy maturity. We can't afford to alienate more nations the next time he flies to foreign places.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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