Peter Popham: This trip may be about business, but let's not ignore diplomacy

To go so baldly bent on business contracts betrays a shocking ignorance of oriental ways

Thursday 29 July 2010 00:00 BST

As he scours the Indian press for evidence that anyone has noticed his arrival in the country, David Cameron is painfully learning the lesson that every British leader coming to India has to digest – that they cannot get it right.

They are arrogant and they are shot down in flames; they are matey and they provoke only disdain; they are "open for business" like Cameron and they drop through a trapdoor into the trackless void.

They come declaring simple friendship, like the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the 60th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997 but their professions are simply disbelieved.

And not without reason: how can the former colonial master, whose political and business decisions determined everything about the development of the subcontinent over the course of centuries, be so naive as to suppose that plain English "goodwill" could make of that long and convoluted relationship a tabula rasa? The reason is because it was India that bore the often cruel impress of the alien power and was changed by it beyond recognition. We acquired overweening self-importance and a taste for curry but were otherwise unchanged.

If Cameron's mission has elicited contempt and indifference it's not surprising. To go so baldly bent on business contracts betrays a shocking ignorance of oriental ways. Politics is always about business in the end, but it needs some cladding of diplomacy or culture, if only for decency's sake.

Cameron was following hard on the heels of Than Shwe, the Burmese dictator, whose pretext for his trip was religion – he visited the site of Buddhist enlightenment, at Bodhgaya. It is depressing to conclude that the Burmese tyrant has a finer nose for diplomatic finesse than our Prime Minister, but it is a fact.

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