Britain has decided to stop all financial aid grants to India after 2015. The largest post-Partition segment of the erstwhile British domains in South Asia has seen a GDP rate of growth that has been outstripping the ‘mother ship’ for quite a few years now. At long last, the proud father can look at the 65-year-old young man and say ‘Look at you. How much you have grown. You still don’t look like I looked in my youth, but that is OK. We were made of different stuff. They don’t make them like that anymore.’ As a rite of passage, the father has decided to discontinue pocket money. The confident son has acted adult and proudly stated that ‘aid is past, trade is future’.
But poverty is the present. And if we cannot hear the ‘giant sucking sound northwards’ that finance capital creates by investing in ‘emerging markets’, it will be the future. Data from the IMF for 2011 shows that measured in purchasing power parity terms, India’s share of the world GDP is 5.65 %. Around the time of the Battle of Palashi (Plassey for the Anglicized) in 1757, the subcontinent accounted for 25% of the world's GDP (Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective). This was slightly more than all of Western Europe’s share (Britain included). And then Britain happened. The Chinese Empire’s share of the world GDP was over 30% in the 1830s. The timing is crucial. For them too, Britain happened, in the form of the Opium Wars. Drug running and colonial empire building has always been closely linked.
In Britain’s decision, there is political expediency at play. Possibly the government cannot be seen to be showering largesse on a group of people whose public faces never tire of talking about their unfathomably deep appetite for market goods and their ‘arrival’ on the global scene. With huge egos pumped up by ill-gotten wealth, the vulgar trot of the ‘global Indian’ on the ‘international stage’ (from European holidays to the Commonwealth Games) is not appreciated by those Britishers whose social safety net is shrinking.
The pompous ambassadors of South Asia have actively connived to supplant the idea of poverty that has been associated with the subcontinent for a long time. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, with poverty come the poor, and with that, willy-nilly, comes the idea that South Delhi types and the bhukha-nanga types might actually be the same type, varnishing aside. Secondly, suggestions of widespread hunger also point a causal arrow to stuffed bellies. The ‘global Indian’ wants to party hard and does not want to spoil the party. In Britain, quite a few have stopped partying and they have come to look at the revellers as the erstwhile hungry. Some of these even turn ‘anti-imperialist’ crusaders at international fora, asking for an equal per capita cap for carbon emissions for all countries. In their posturing, no one asks whether they plan to follow this notion of distributive justice inside the country too — with a Bandra high-rise resident having the same cap for carbon emissions as the Dharavi resident. PR can work wonders. Lutyens's Delhi can be spruced up as an anti-imperialist fortress.
The extent of the ‘India loot’ and the ‘China loot’ has been erased from public memory in Britain. Sleepy little towns got cobblestones, streetlights, extensive plumbing. Teenage small-town boys without job prospects back home became sahibs and came back with loot. The loot underwrote war efforts and reconstruction efforts. Traditional loot became systematically incorporated in the modes of life and infrastructural amenities that are rather innocuously now called a ‘higher standard of living’.
This forgetting is also aided by the silence of the looted. But it was not too long ago when Dadabhai Naoroji was crying hoarse over ‘Drain of Wealth’. Have such ideas become unfashionable in a subcontinent where such drain now occurs within, flowing down the highways into the cities? However unfashionable that may be, the descendants of those who were short-changed by the British rule in the subcontinent far outnumber those who benefited from it. If the former were ruling India, they would be asking for reparations. Even if the most modest estimates were true, such reparations would make Britain what it has been for much of its existence — a food-deficient island in the North Sea.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.