MUMBAI // The British prime minister, David Cameron, called on India to further open up to foreign investment and loosen regulations that hamper businesses, saying today that the countries' "special relationship" could blossom into a powerful economic partnership.
On his second visit to Britain's former colony, Mr Cameron led a delegation of more than 100 British CEOS and investors and stopped first in Mumbai, India's financial capital. He is to continue to New Delhi and meet the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, today.
"One of the cases we are going to make this week is that we hope the Indian government will continue with the brilliant work that it has begun to open up the Indian economy, to take down the barriers and to make it easier to do business here," Mr Cameron told Indian and British business leaders at a conference.
India's fast-growing economy is now forecast to stall at 5 per cent growth, its weakest in a decade. Businesses have blamed onerous rules for getting permits and resolving legal disputes, along with a creaking infrastructure and uncertainty over future tax policy, for the slowdown. The country is ranked just 132 out of 185 countries in the World Bank's ranking of ease of doing business.
Late last year, India announced it would allow more foreign investment in retail stores and aviation, but investors are watching to see how soon the reforms take effect.
Responding to Indian complaints of barriers to their own entry, Mr Cameron today announced a same-day British business visa service for Indian investors and said there was "no limit" to Indian student visas, as long as they had been accepted to a British school.
More than 65 years after India gained independence from British colonial rule, some of Great Britain's best-known brands are owned by Indian companies. Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group now owns Jaguar Land Rover and Tetley Tea - a fact that Mr Cameron said made him "positively proud". But he added that openness should be a two-way street.
Britain and India have pledged to double combined trade to £23 billion pounds (Dh132bn) by 2015.
Among the business delegation travelling with Mr Cameron were representatives of British companies including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, BP, football's Premier League and the London Underground.
The delegation, which includes representatives of more than 100 companies, is the biggest taken abroad by a British premier and includes four ministers and nine MPs.
But the timing of the trip is not ideal. India said on Friday it wanted to cancel a £483 million deal for a dozen helicopters made by AgustaWestland, the Anglo-Italian subsidiary of Italy's Finmeccanica, over bribery claims.
That will not make Mr Cameron's job of persuading India to buy more civil and military hardware easier, and Indian officials have told the press they intend to push Mr Cameron for "a fully-fledged report" on what Britain knows about the scandal.
Britain has said it wants to wait until the end of the Italian investigation before commenting in full, but has given India an interim report on the subject.
"This is something for the Italian and Indian authorities to deal with and I'm sure they will," Mr Cameron told reporters yesterday, saying issues had been raised that needed to be settled.
Mr Cameron said he would tell the Indian government that the Eurofighter jet, which is partly built in Britain, remains an attractive option if India decides to review a multibillion dollar deal to buy 126 French-made Rafale fighters. New Delhi rejected the Eurofighter last year.
The Eurofighter "Typhoon is a superior aircraft", he said, adding that the consortium that built it had said it would "look again" at the price. Such a deal could involve technology transfer and industrial participation, he said.
"I will make clear the Typhoon is still available."
Mr Cameron's trip comes days after a similar trade mission by French president Francois Hollande, underlining how Europe's debt-struck states are competing to tap into one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse