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Helicopter scandal hangs over Cameron's India visit


A file photo of AW101 VVIP Airforce helicopter

New Delhi: British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in India's financial hub Mumbai on Monday on a three-day trade-focused visit clouded by a corruption scandal over British-made helicopters sold to New Delhi. Cameron's trip comes amid a raging scandal over the procurement of 12 helicopters for use by VIPs in 2010, which were bought for $748 million (560 million euros) from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland.

After an investigation in Italy suggested kickbacks were paid via middlemen to secure the deal, India has taken steps to cancel the contract and has started its own police investigation. The British prime minister is likely to face further questions about the contract -- the helicopters are being manufactured in southwest Britain -- with the Indian government keen to be seen to be acting tough on a new graft scandal.

"We did ask (Britain) in November and they said that since the Italians are investigating let us await the outcome (of that probe)," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told AFP.

Indian investigators will travel to Italy as early as this week as part of an inquiry into the matter, a spokesperson for the Delhi-based Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said Sunday. Cameron, who is accompanied by a large business delegation, will be far keener to address new areas for trade and investment between Britain and its former colony, whose economy has slowed sharply but still offers vast potential.

The British leader has targeted a doubling of trade with India from 11.5 billion pounds ($17.8 billion, 13.4 billion euros) in 2010 to 23 billion pounds by the time he faces re-election in 2015. "I'm in no doubt that India is going to one of the great success stories of this century," he told the Hindustan Times in an interview published Monday. "And I want Britain to be one of your partners as you grow."

After business meetings in Mumbai on Monday, he will fly to New Delhi for face-to-face talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday. On his first trip to the country in 2010 after his election, Cameron pressed the case for the part-British Eurofighter jet, which was competing to win a $12 billion contract for 126 aircraft.

Last January, India selected a rival French plane, the Rafale made by Dassault Aviation, but with the deal still not finalised Cameron is likely to remind the Indian government of the Eurofighter's merits. Among his business delegation, executives from the Tesco supermarket chain are eyeing the retail sector following recent reforms to open up the market, as are bosses from the banking and insurance world.

The delegation also includes heads of six British universities aiming to attract students to Britain and seek partnerships in India's vast higher education market. On his last trip to India in 2010, Cameron issued an unexpectedly blunt warning to India's arch-rival Pakistan about promoting "the export of terror", which played well in New Delhi but provoked a furious response in Islamabad.

Pakistan's ambassador to Britain accused Cameron of "damaging the prospects of regional peace". Cameron also stressed during the trip that he had come to India "in a spirit of humility" in a deliberate attempt to distance himself from previous visiting British politicians who have upset their hosts.

In 2009, then British foreign minister David Miliband ignited a diplomatic furore when he linked the 2008 Mumbai attacks to the lack of a solution in divided Kashmir. India resents any foreign involvement in the Himalayan region, which it sees as a bilateral issue between it and Pakistan.

As well as trade, Cameron will also use the trip to correct any misunderstandings about his government's drive to slash immigration numbers amid concerns that young Indians could be deterred from applying to study in Britain. "There is no limit on the number of students who can come from India to study at British universities," he told the Hindustan Times.

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What a time has arrived...now the European heads of states are heading to India with begging bowl. It used to be the other way round a few years ago...interesting times we are living in...