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Perhaps India, rather than China, should be the target of Britain’s charm offensive

Perhaps India, rather than China, should be the target of Britain’s charm offensive

According to Steve Hilton, former chief strategist to David Cameron, Britain is humiliating itself unnecessarily by “sucking up” to China when instead it could be “rolling out the red carpet” for India. “We should prioritise our relationship with India because that’s where the opportunity is,” he said this week on BBC Newsnight, striking a resonant chord with the many British citizens, of Indian origin and otherwise, who see India as the more natural and sympathetic ally. Parliamentary democracy, a free media, the English language, tea with milk: however ruthless and greedy British imperialism may have been, its 250-year history in India left that country with several of the imperfect institutions, beliefs and habits that Britain finds familiar and admirable.

But where is the money in all this – the investment in the nuclear power plants and high-speed railways that Britain allegedly needs? The brute truth is that China has piles of cash looking for a return abroad and India doesn’t. It will overtake China in the next 10 years to become the world’s most populous country, and yet it’s still only the world’s seventh-largest economy. Its gross domestic product lies between those of France and Italy in a league table that has the UK in fifth place with a GDP a quarter of China’s. Of course, these positions aren’t fixed. This year India overtook China in its growth rate, and it may well replace Japan as the world’s third-richest country during the next 10 to 15 years. In the long term, then, Hilton may be right about India as the greater opportunity. The pertinent question is whether the long Indo-British encounter gives Britain any special advantage over other nations in exploiting it.

If history was arithmetical and just – if it amounted to a cycle of loss and reparation – then Britain should, if anything, be disadvantaged. In a speech 10 years ago, India’s then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, quoted the work of the English economic historian, Angus Maddison, to show how India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, which was almost equal to the whole of Europe’s share at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952. “There is no doubt that our grievances against the British Empire had a sound basis,” Singh said, adding that the so-called “brightest jewel in the British crown” was by 1900 the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income. “However,” he continued, “what is significant about the Indo-British relationship is the fact that despite the economic impact of colonial rule, the relationship between individual Indians and Britons, even at the time of our Independence, was relaxed and, I may even say, benign.”

It needs to be said that he was speaking after the award of an honorary degree from Oxford University, where he’d been a postgraduate student in economics 40 years before. Nonetheless, his remarks can’t be disparaged as the sentimentality of a privileged elite. Few British visitors to India in the past 70 years can ever have complained about a want of hospitality or friendship. In fact, this human dimension became such a large part of the postcolonial British response to the place that the foundations of the relationship, which lay in conquest and trade, were obscured by a cloud of fond feeling that was part EM Forster, part Ravi Shankar and (for a few) part bhang. Independence hadn’t meant that Britain and India had stopped selling things to each other. In the middle 1960s, the UK was still India’s largest trading partner after the US, whose wheat exports alleviated critical Indian shortages. The Soviet Union, West Germany and Japan were rising in importance, but when I first went to India, in 1976, Britain was by far the most obvious foreign influence. Cars, chocolate, newspapers, railways, biscuits, books, cigarette brands, the voices that read the radio news: all bore the hallmark of the old colonial power.

And yet the British people I encountered in the years that followed rarely talked about trade. It didn’t interest them. There were exceptions: in an Indian coal town I met a Yorkshire mining engineer, and in Kolkata the knighted chairman of a tea company who had sherry with his soup. These were remnants rather than forerunners: like the names of the big managing agencies – Mackinnon Mackenzie, Shaw Wallace, Andrew Yule – they survived as evidence that Britain had once had a considerable commercial presence in the cities then called Calcutta and Bombay. It was easy to meet Indian executives who until recently had to wear cummerbunds to ICI dinners – the company rule – and marvel at the beautiful models of British liners that shipping offices kept in glass cases, but the tide had gone out. Selling goods to India can’t have been easy in an era of protectionism when poorly run industries sheltered behind high tariff barriers, and the country’s low growth rate put a brake on demand. Perhaps, too, there was a failure of will on the British side, prompted by the feeling that a long historical process was ending: a commercial exhaustion. In Britain, interest in India had never been higher than it was in the 1980s – the Raj Quartet on TV, Attenborough’s Gandhi at the cinema, Salman Rushdie on the bookshelves – but it rarely translated into the urge to trade. And, of course, there was also the question of what a deindustrialising Britain had to sell that India might want or (in the case of arms) could be persuaded to buy.

When economic liberalisation happened in the 1990s, India went elsewhere for its technology. Britain, it seemed, had missed its chance. Prime ministers went out to drum up business, but by then everybody wanted to be India’s friend. Today the UK no longer makes the list of India’s top 15 trading partners; neither does India appear in such a British list. China matters far, far more to both countries than they do to each other.

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In any case, Hilton’s wish is already obliged. The red carpet will be rolled out when India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, pays his first visit to Britain next month. He won’t enjoy treatment quite as plush as Xi Jinping: Modi isn’t a head of state, so no palace banquet and no ride in a coach up the Mall. But 70,000 people will crowd into Wembley stadium for a rally in his honour, which may be more than compensation. Similar love-ins, organised and attended by the Indian diaspora, have been a feature of his visits to Australia and the US, but Wembley promises to be the bigger and better, closing with what the organisers say will be “the largest fireworks display ever held in the UK”.

Modi has bitter critics as well as avid supporters. His role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 has never been established to general satisfaction, and reports suggest communal tensions in India are growing under his rule. Nearly 40 Westminster MPs have signed a motion calling on Cameron to raise human rights concerns with Modi during his visit. They include Alex Salmond and Jeremy Corbyn.

So, Xi or Narendra? We must try to imagine an Indian peasant being confronted with a similar question in 1700, when India had a quarter of the world’s income. Colonial armies are gathering over the horizon. Who would you rather rule you, Britain or France?

Saturday, October 24, 2015
By: The Guardian

http://www.defencenews.in/article/article/article/Perhaps-India,-rather-than-China,-should-be-the-target-of-Britain%E2%80%99s-charm-offensive-90

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