Helicopter scandal risks clouding Cameron visit to India

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron heads to India next week with an extensive trade delegation for a visit clouded by a corruption scandal over British-built helicopters.

The trip to Delhi and the commercial capital Mumbai comes hot on the heels of a visit to India by French President Francois Hollande to drum up trade, underlining the growing importance of the Indian economy.

Mr Cameron said ahead of the visit that he wanted the relationship between Britain and India to be "one of the great partnerships of the 21st century".

But his second trip to India as prime minister will require deft handling after the Indian government said it was cancelling a US$748 million (S$925 million) deal to buy 12 helicopters for VIPs from an Italian firm amid allegations the contract was won through kickbacks.

India took steps to scrap the contract on Friday after Italian investigators probed allegations that aerospace group Finmeccanica, the parent company of Anglo-Italian helicopter unit AgustaWestland, had broken the law by paying bribes to foreign officials.

The helicopters, three of which have already been delivered, are manufactured in south-west England.

Mr Cameron's first overture to India was snubbed last year when Delhi selected a French fighter jet over the part-British Eurofighter in a US$12 billion contract, a deal which Mr Hollande was seeking to tie up during his visit.

The British government has taken note of the fact that the huge contract with Dassault Aviation is still not finalised, and hopes to remind the Indian government of Eurofighter's merits in case they change their mind.

A government source told Britain's Press Association news agency: "Hollande was in India this week, and a deal has not been signed so we will want to find out from the Indians how their talks are progressing with the French."

Aside from defence, British retailers are keen to increase their presence in India, and executives from the Tesco supermarket chain, Britain's biggest retailer that already has a joint venture in India, are expected to fill some of the seats on Mr Cameron's plane.

The Prime Minister remains confident that he will reach of goal of doubling Britain's trade with India from 11.5 billion pounds (S$22.1 billion) in 2010 to 23 billion pounds by the time he faces the next general election in 2015.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.