By Swapan Dasgupta
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that India was facing a crucial election whose outcome would determine its future course. Then consider the likely public reaction if the leader of a mighty country with which we have a “special relationship” flying down to Delhi and telling the people which way to vote. Worse, informing us that if the vote went differently, India would be relegated to the “back of the queue.”
This is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom last week. President Obama flew down to London, lunched merrily with the Queen, presented a lovely wooden rocking horse to the young Prince George and then lectured Britons on what was good for them, because it was in his national interest.
Obama’s intervention—laced with characteristic charm and smooth talking—centred on the June 23 referendum that will determine Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union. The stakes are high. If Britain votes for Brexit, it is calculated to have a knock on effect all over Europe and, conceivably, trigger the unravelling of the EU. As it is, there is widespread scepticism of the EU in France over immigration. And in southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, there is rage over what is perceived as a German-controlled EU. From economic austerity to unregulated immigration, almost every European country has a grudge against an emerging super-state.
Yet, quite ironically, Obama’s gratuitous advice to British voters didn’t witness an uninhibited display of outrage and nationalistic flag waving—as it inevitably would have done in India. On the contrary, the Churchillian we-will-protect-our-sovereignty voices were (at least in the opinion polls) momentarily subsumed by the concerns of the risk-averse. There was jubilation in the City of London and among the so-called “Davos men” that Obama had successfully injected the profound fear of an uncertain future if Britain exited the EU. Yes, they asserted, the EU wasn’t perfect but the alternative was far more dreadful. If this trend persists for the next few weeks, the referendum outcome is likely to show that contemporary Britain has turned its back on history and embraced a new European identity.
The forthcoming referendum may well suggest that, unlike emergent countries where nationalism has a profound emotional appeal, the more prosperous parts of the world are guided by economic pragmatism. To put its starkly, the Remain voters are more guided by a concern for their jobs, mortgages and pensions than the face of Britain changing with the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the EU countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And, for the moment, the Remain brigade appears to be the less-shrill majority.
On the face of it, apart from the sheer quaintness of the campaign, Brexit doesn’t appear to excite the Indian imagination. The conventional wisdom in the corporate boardrooms and among the strategic community is that India would prefer a UK inside the EU. After all, thanks to the English language, London has become the new gateway to Europe, one of India’s larger trading partners.
To my mind, apart from reflecting the American consensus, this quiet preference for the status quo is a typical risk-averse approach grounded in intellectual laziness. There is little by way of preparation in the event a majority of Britons decide they prefer to be governed by politicians in Westminster than bureaucrats in Brussels.
That the final decision is beyond the control of New Delhi is undeniable. At the same time, India should be heartened by the robust enthusiasm of the pro-Brexit camp for developing closer economic ties—leading to possible Free Trade Agreements—with the Emergent Asia that includes India and China. Brexit actually permits India to develop an economic outpost in a European country. The EU is governed by abstract principles and its preachiness is infuriating; the UK being a “nation of shopkeepers” is by contrast flexible and driven by commercial calculations. India and Britain understand each other far better than an amorphous EU comprehends the exotic Orient. India would rather do business bilaterally with European countries than be weighed down by a monolithic Europe.
At this stage of our development, India should welcome a little churning in the West. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union did us absolutely no harm.
Sunday Times of India, May 1, 2016