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Big Brother to big bird, Britain’s ache

London, Feb. 17: David Cameron will not want his mission to India hijacked by the deepening “bribes” row over the UK-built AgustaWestland helicopters, just as Gordon Brown’s trip as Chancellor in 2007 was overshadowed by the alleged racist treatment of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother.

The schedule for the Cameron visit is “totally mad”, complained a member of his party in an informal chat with The Telegraph: “We leave Sunday, arrive Mumbai Monday, go straight into meetings almost from the airport; 6am flight to Delhi on Tuesday, party for 2,000 at the British high commissioner’s residence; Wednesday we are back in London — what harm could it have done to have spent one more day in India?”

Still, Cameron, who has invested a great deal of political capital on the visit, leaves London today with a party of more than 140, said to be “the biggest delegation a British Prime Minister has taken overseas”.

In interviews with ethnic publications prior to departure, Cameron has emphasised his resolve to consolidate Britain’s “special relationship” with India — an expression generally reserved for the US.

Cameron wants to use Britain’s 1.5-2m very successful Indian-origin population to strengthen UK-India ties.

He confirmed that “this time I particularly want to build the special relationship between the Indian diaspora here in the UK and make new links between them and businesses in India, so we really get the most out of the special relationship”.

He also pledged: “There is no limit to the number of students who can come and study in British universities if they have a place and the basic English language qualifications to come and study.”

Figures show the number of students from India has fallen over the past year by 23.5 per cent — but to be fair to the British, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a significant number of student visa applications come from bogus applicants who have little English but wish somehow to evade immigration control.

In the ministerial team going to India, Cameron is accompanied by Hugo Swire, the minister of state at the foreign office, and Greg Barker, his energy minister who acts as a de facto coordinating “minister for India”.

There are six Indian-origin members of the House of Lords who are not even all Tory — curry king Gulam Noon (Labour); academic Bhikhu Parekh (Labour); Dolar Popat, chairperson of the Conservative Friends of India, a Tory whip in the House of Lords and a government spokesperson on business, innovation and skills and transport; Raj Loomba (Lib Dem), who runs a charity to help widows; Karan Bilimoria (crossbencher) of Cobra Beer; and Kamlesh Patel (Labour), a healthcare professional whose broad Yorkshire accent may intrigue Indians.

Parekh, who will speak tomorrow at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai where he was a student from 1950-53, said: “The areas chosen — business, infrastructure, education — show a degree of symmetry between what India wants and what the British are willing to offer.”

The trip also has symbolic importance. “For a Prime Minister to go twice in three years, without a return visit from Manmohan Singh, is unusual and shows the significance of the trip.”

Bilimoria waxed eloquent in a comment piece, “PM’s India visit is a chance to show a bold new Britain”, in The Sunday Telegraph. The paper has an idyllic photograph of King’s College Chapel taken from across the Cam to emphasise that Cambridge University, where Bilimoria was an undergraduate, “has fostered links with India”.

Bilimoria points out that the British government is committed to doubling UK-India trade but he acknowledges: “What will become clear in India this week is that the UK is in a global race for the key emerging markets.”

Among the MPs is Priti Patel, a Tory so far to the right of the socially liberal Prime Minister that he has avoided making her even a junior minister.

To back up Cameron’s claim that genuine Indian students are welcome to come to the UK and stay on to work for a couple of years, there are 12 educationists travelling with Cameron, including Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University; his counterparts at Exeter, Southampton and Warwick; and Craig Calhoun, the new director of the London School of Economics.

Along with the chief executive of the British Council is Peter Sands, the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank and co-chairman, opposite Ratan Tata, of the India UK CEO Forum; and heads or senior representatives from Arup, Santander, KPMG, BT, Debenhams, BT and BAE.

Some of the 70 businessmen are having to pay 8,000 for the privilege of travelling with the Prime Minister. There are also nearly 30 journalists who don’t get a freebie but also have to pay their share.

There remains a risk that despite careful planning, the whole trip will be dominated by the AgustaWestland affair.

Cameron will point out that Britain has in place tough anti-bribery legislation but The Sunday Times warned today: “The scandal threatens to overshadow David Cameron’s trade mission to India. it is understood Graham Cole, chairman of AgustaWestland UK, will not be on the trip.”

Cameron’s “efforts to improve Britain’s reputation may be undermined by Indian threats to cancel a deal to purchase 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters, built at its plant in Yeovil, Somerset,” it said.

The paper explained that AgustaWestland, owned by the Italian defence group, Finmeccanica, “is alleged to have paid 26m to Christian Michel, a British middleman”, to help it secure the helicopter deal for the Indian Air Force.

The company admitted that Michel had worked for it on commercial deals but not on military contracts. “AgustaWestland is confident that the full compliance with the relevant laws as well as the good conduct of its past and present senior executives will be demonstrated as soon as possible.”

The paper also said: “Cameron is expected to make a last-ditch attempt to snatch a $20bn fighter jet deal from France. The Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a consortium led by BAE Systems, lost out to Dassault’s Rafale but the contract has yet to be signed.”

A claim Cameron should not make in India is that one of his most valued possessions is a cricket bat signed by Sachin Tendulkar — after all, he has flogged the gift at a charity auction.