Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 15th June 2004.

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Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:30 am, 15th June 2004

What assessment he has made of the implications for Indo-British relations of the election of a new Government in India.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Relations between the United Kingdom and India are already very strong and I believe that they will strengthen further, following the election of the United Progressive Alliance Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on their election victory. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will travel to India soon. Tomorrow, I shall welcome the new Indian Foreign Minister, Natwar Singh, to London, and there are plans for a further three Indian Ministers to visit the UK within the next 10 days.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I draw the attention of the House to my registrable interest in this subject. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's answer, especially as he referred to Mr. Natwar Singh, the new External Affairs Minister, who is a former member of my old college, Corpus Christi college, Cambridge. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the newly formed Government in India are very encouraging? They are broadly based in faith terms, with Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Hindu members, as reflected in early-day motion 1300. They are also broadly based in economic and political terms. Will he ensure that every contact we have with the Indian Government reminds them of the importance of maintaining their commitment to open markets and liberalisation?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Manmohan Singh was one of the pioneers of the liberalising economic programme that began in the 1990s and which has laid the foundation for India's remarkable economic progress since then. They are a broadly based Government, with a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President, a Hindu External Affairs Minister and a Christian leader of the largest party. That emphasises the triumph of Indian democracy and its secular society.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Hornchurch

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn the money men who hounded Sonia Gandhi from office through the manipulation of the markets a few weeks ago? Will he also welcome the attempt to return India to the broadly based and secular future—and a united future, as Mr. Luff mentioned—that Congress has always sought and that was undermined and sabotaged by the neo-fascists of the BJP?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

May I make it clear that we had very good relations—close personal and close institutional Government relations—with the previous Government of India and high-level respect for their leaders? My hon. Friend will forgive me, but I am afraid that I shall not get involved in the internal affairs of the Indian Government or Indian political parties. The important thing is that there was a free and democratic election; the people of India made their decision and we should respect it.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

Given the likely enormous economic potential and political importance of India over the coming decades, and given the United Kingdom's special links with India in all sorts of ways, will the Foreign Secretary make it a priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that the highest attention is given to promoting Indo-British relations?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's point; the relationship has the highest level of commitment and attention. I have been to India five or six times during the past four years. I was last there at the beginning of February and intend to visit again as quickly as I can, and so will the Prime Minister.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love PPS (Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

I add my congratulations to India on its vibrant democracy and its continuing commitment to a secular society. What efforts is my right hon. Friend making to maintain the dialogue that the previous Government set up with Pakistan to ensure a peaceful future for that region of the world?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

In January, I met Sonia Gandhi and Natwar Singh when they were in opposition, and they made clear to me their commitment to, and support for, the then Government's efforts—the Vajpayee-Musharraf efforts—to secure a composite dialogue, including on the issue of Kashmir. From my telephone contact with Natwar Singh earlier, I am in no doubt at all—nor shall I be, I am sure, after my meetings with him tomorrow—that the Congress-led Government will have the same commitment to pursue that dialogue, which has already produced great benefits for both sides and offers the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the 60-year-old dispute over the area of Kashmir.