For far too long Britain has acted with a deeply naive attitude towards India. Labour’s conduct towards the emerging super-power has not only done much to damage our relations at a governmental level – I.K. Gujral, Indian Prime minster from 1997 to 1998, once described Britain as ‘a third-rate power’ – but has also been detrimental to the image that the average Indian holds of us. I had ample chance for debate with Indian students whilst being shown round Mumbai University. Political students, with an insightful understanding of diplomacy between Britain and India, often told me that the former was often perceived as subordinating the latter, through some complacent arrogance that had somehow imbedded itself in the policies of successive governments after 1947.
The British ruled in India for over 200 years, the images of English gentlemen riding elephants and the stories of Kipling are a deep-set part of our culture, and to older generations India will always be that jewel in the British empire. However, we are deeply mistaken if we assume that this shared history gives us any prestige in the eyes of Indians. To Indians, this is little more than a period of history best forgotten.
Right from the outset mistakes were made by Labour about the ‘shared history’ that Britain and India were, quite wrongly, assumed to posses. During the Queen’s 1997 visit, a Band of Royal Marines was forbidden from playing due to its ‘imperial connotations’ and the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, put his foot in it by offering to mediate between India and Pakistan.
In its final years, Labour was far too occupied in its snuggling-up to China to turn its attentions to the quietly flourishing India and recognise its increasing importance as both a military and trading ally. Once again, embarrassing mistakes were made; notably, David Miliband lecturing Indian Ministers on human rights issues whilst addressing them by their first names. All of which has only served to push Britain to the peripheries of India’s political consciousness.
Thankfully, It seems that Cameron’s delegation of cabinet ministers and business leaders – the largest British delegation to visit the country since independence – can be taken as a direct contrast to labour’s prior indifference, and putting in its place an appreciation and reverence for a state that could do just as well without our support.
That is not to say that this new ‘special relationship’ is completely without benefits for India. The £700m deal between BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Hindustan Aeronautics will provide a multitude of jobs to the masses of unemployed within India (a problem that is currently being remedied by assigning three of four workers to do the job of one).
Furthermore, though we cannot rely on a shared sense of history and nostalgia to support relations between our two countries, we can appeal to the deep personal ties that are not hard to find. Britain has a 1.5 million Indian diaspora and there are 34,000 Indian nationals studying in Britain, and despite the growing allure of America as a place to study, Britain is still held as the highest in terms of repute (in all the Indian cities I visited, I saw billboards advertising agencies that would – perhaps misleadingly- ‘guarantee’ you a student visa to Britain). All of which instantly brings Britain and India closer together.
Let’s hope that David Cameron’s pledges to place a cap on non-EU migration and restrictions on student visas doesn’t end up being irrevocably detrimental towards these personal ties.