By Swapan Dasgupta
Maybe it’s a question of sheer familiarity but the annual Queen’s Birthday Party hosted by the British High Commissioner on the lawns of his spacious bungalow Delhi is among the more agreeable diplomatic parties in the overcrowded social calendar of Lutyens’ Delhi. Last year, when the focus was on the Queen’s Jubilee (yes, she has been on the throne for over six decades), the organisers did something that I thought was a trifle odd: they decorated the place in a very unmemorable Indian way.
Perhaps the idea was to underplay the imperial links that bind the United Kingdom to the former Jewel in the Crown—let’s not forget that the Queen’s father was the last King-Emperor of India. But it prompted a guest to ask a British diplomat whether he imagined that Elizabeth II was still the Queen of India.
I don’t know how the representative of Her Majesty’s Government responded but judging from the squeamishness that accompanies any reference to the Raj, the diplomat may well have imagined that the attempt to Indian-ise the Jubilee celebrations in Delhi may well have given unintended offence. And giving offence to the ‘natives’ is what the new generation of politically correct Britons dread most.
Last Tuesday, the representatives of the Queen didn’t dial any wrong numbers. The occasion, additionally glamourized by the presence of Prime Minister David Cameron, suitably showcased a Britain that Indians are familiar with and, more important, have grown to like. The liveried waiters served a suitably fruity Pimms, the more exotic blends of Johnnie Walker and there was even a stall serving a curious cocktail of Twinnings Earl Grey tea and Cointreau. The military band, specially flown in for the occasion, refrained from experimenting with Bhangra Pop and Reggae and stuck to iconic tunes that included the theme tune from Dam Busters, Land of Hope and Glory and even Jerusalem. With some British companies showcasing their products, it was a happy mix of Sebastian Coe and Stephen Fry.
Making the UK (no one talks of England any longer) relevant to a resurgent former colony in the 21st century is calculated to be daunting. There is, of course, the troublesome but inescapable baggage of history. How to eradicate the pukka sahib image that exists in the minds of Indians—it has long disappeared from the erstwhile Mother Country—is a constant preoccupation. David Cameron addressed the issue far more successfully at Jallianwala Bagh than the Queen did during her diplomatically disastrous visit in 1997. This, however, is entirely a contemporary British or, rather, a Guardian problem. At the Jaipur Literature Festival held a month or so ago, Indian audiences were quite willing to discuss even seemingly touchy subjects such as Rudyard Kipling and the Empire as history—not contemporary politics.
For the UK and particularly for modernist Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair and Cameron, the more relevant challenge was to convince Indians that there is more to Albion than the mandatory stopover in London during the summer vacs. The need for this arose out of the conviction that India will emerge as an economic powerhouse by 2020 and that the UK should be in a position to use its traditional links to forge a meaningful economic partnership with it.
The assumptions behind Cameron’s initiative in 2010 to strive for a near-special relationship with New Delhi were unexceptionable. The real problem the UK faced was one of image. The sustained economic decline of Britain that began in 1945 and continued till Margaret Thatcher put some life back into the ailing country meant that the ‘sick man of Europe’ image took deep roots. Britain was perceived as a declining economy, lacking in drive, innovation and competitiveness—a point that, despite the high level of investments in that country by the Tata Group, was driven home quite recently by Rattan Tata in an interview that created quite a stir. There was a time when the Indian use of the term ‘West” invariably included the UK. But over the years this association became more and more tenuous.
What is interesting about Cameron’s sustained bid to upgrade his country’s standing in India is that it is not overtly dependant on the government. During a brief interaction with the British Prime Minister last Tuesday, I asked him whether his untiring diplomacy had been reciprocated. He answered that Indians were among the largest investors in the UK.
That he chose to ignore the Indian Government’s lethargic response to many outstanding issues was revealing. The UK is now selling itself directly to the private sector over the heads of the Government—although there is the desperate hope that the India-European Union Free Trade Agreement will be inked this year. It is emphasising the competitive rates of corporate taxes, the economic freedoms that appeal to entrepreneurs and the centrality of the City of London in raising capital. To these existing advantages, Cameron has promised a flexible immigration policy to harness Indian businesses and entrepreneurship.
Indians sometimes mistakenly assume that the UK’s primary objective is to use India as a profit extraction zone. That consideration isn’t absent. But it is being increasingly balanced by the desire to give Indian money a profitable outlet in the UK. It is the diplomacy centred on a two-way traffic that India’s officialdom has not quite grasped. It is South Block not Whitehall that is in a time warp.
Asian Age, February 22, 2013
Asian Age, February 22, 2013