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Cameron in trade offensive amid India graft scandal

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in India on Monday with what he called Britain's biggest ever overseas business delegation for a three-day visit clouded by a corruption scandal.

His trip, starting in Mumbai, comes amid a raging controversy over India's procurement in 2010 of 12 helicopters from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland in a $748 million (560 million euros) deal.

After an investigation in Italy suggested kickbacks were paid via middlemen to secure the deal, India has taken steps to cancel the contract and started its own police inquiry.

The British prime minister is likely to face further questions about the probe -- the helicopters are being manufactured in southwest England -- with the Indian government keen to be seen to be acting tough on its latest problem.

The affair has taken the gloss off Cameron's second trip to India to press for deeper economic ties between the two countries and greater access for British companies in one of the world's most dynamic economies.

"India's rise is going to be one of the great phenomena of this century," he said at a factory of part-British consumer products group Hindustan Unilever.

"Britain wants to be your partner of choice".

The British leader has targeted a doubling of annual bilateral trade 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.

Among his 100-plus delegation are executives eyeing moves by the Indian government to open up the retail, airline, banking and insurance sectors to foreign investors.

It also includes heads of six British universities aiming to attract students to Britain and seek partnerships in India's vast higher education market.

"We want to make sure that just as we welcome Indian investment into the UK, so it's easier for British firms, including insurance, banking, retail, to invest in this vibrant and fast-growing economy," Cameron later told business leaders.

Amid concerns about a drive to slash immigration numbers and fears that young Indians could be deterred from applying to study in Britain, Cameron stressed there was no limit on the number of Indians who could study there.

He also announced a new same-day visa service for Indian business people, and said Britain would be "rewriting our rules on the high-level technology that we're prepared to share with our Indian partners".

Britain would like to play a key role in developing towns along a 1,000-kilometre (600 mile) corridor between the key business cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, Cameron added.

"We have architects, planners, designers here to help discuss it with you and if this idea takes off we'd like to be part of it," he told NDTV news.

After his business meetings in the financial capital on Monday, Cameron will fly to New Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday.

His pitch for deeper ties with New Delhi echoes similar statements from fellow Western leaders seeking to hitch their stagnant economies to one of the world's fastest-growing regions.

India's economy has slowed sharply recently, with a government agency forecasting a growth rate of five percent in the fiscal year ending March, but the country is hoping to recapture higher growth in the next couple of years.

Cameron was also expected to remind the government of the merits of the part-British Eurofighter jet, which was competing for a $12 billion contract until last year.

India chose France's Dassault Aviation for exclusive negotiations but the deal has still not been signed.

Indian investigators will travel to Italy as early as this week as part of an inquiry into the alleged helicopter kickbacks, the Delhi-based Central Bureau of Investigation said on Sunday.

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", in comments which played well in New Delhi but provoked a furious response in Islamabad.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130218/cameron-trade-offensive-amid-india-graft-scandal-1