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The curious case of India-UK ties

Tuesday, 8 July 2014 - 10:49pm IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: DNA
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Foreign Secretary William Hague at a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI

Foreign Secretary of Britain William Hague and George Osbourne, the Chancellor of Exchequer, are currently in India to bolster ties between the two countries under the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

To woo New Delhi further, Britain has also announced that it will erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Parliament Square in London, sharing the prized public space with the likes of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who hated Gandhi, and once famously called him a “half naked fakir.” Churchill had also advocated that India as an idea was bound to fail. Perhaps, the shrewd politicians in London know that such symbolism goes down well as good PR in a highly emotional country such as India. 

However, today, India’s ties with its former coloniser are fruitful, with vibrant economic, political and social interactions. Indians make up for the single biggest migrant group in the UK, with British Prime Minister David Cameron even calling for more Indian origin leaders to be part of the country’s parliament. 

The two sides yesterday signed deals worth £370 million, majority of which, unsurprisingly, come from British companies vying for space in India’s huge defence import market. Out of the £370 million, the Indian Air Force’s deal to buy ASRAAM missiles for its Jaguar fighter jet fleet from defence manufacturer MBDA alone is worth £250 million. 

10 Downing Street has been bullish on the India story, perhaps even more so than Delhi itself, as a potential economic super-power and more so, a huge market for domestic consumption. Cameron has made two visits to India since 2011, and high-level visits by other British politicians have been constant since. On the other hand, politically, India’s response to London’s keenness has been lukewarm at best. Delegations to Britain are few and have achieved little with most ending up being only symbolic. The last time an Indian PM visited London on a bilateral state visit was in 2004, and if chatter is to be believed, posting to India’s diplomatic mission in London is seen as a “cushiony” job, with not a lot of ‘diplomacy’ to take care of.

Perhaps, it can be argued, that even today a large section of India still sees Britain from a colonial mind set, with vengeance topping as an emotion. During his previous visit, Cameron went to the site of the Jallianwala Bagh killings of 1919, where he described the massacre as a “deeply shameful event.” This statement was translated by a certain section of the public as an apology, which some believed was due by the British for their actions. However, many such as Mushirul Hasan of the National Archives dismissed the need for an ‘apology,’ saying one such statement would lead to a never ending cycle.  

However, today, economics has come forward as the mainstay for relations between the UK and India. The Indian economy over the past few years has skyrocketed, while Britain’s has flailed under increased manufacturing and services sector competition from Asia with the financial crisis of 2008 adding further economic strains. But what the island nation still has is its historic and prevailing culture of innovation and technology, specifically in areas such as energy, health, infrastructure etc.

For India, most bilateral relations today outside its neighbourhood hold together to a large extent on economics and investments. Historical and societal ties are fine, but what it gains out of the relationship is directly proportionate to how much diplomatic and political leverage the Indian government is going to spend over its relations with London. Even though Britain’s global clout is diminishing, it still remains for now as one of the world’s top economies, and this alone should be enough for India to raise the level of engagement. 

From a British point of view, they have their work cut out. India has shown that reciprocal relations, such as the one it is nurturing with Japan in Asia and Germany in Europe, is where it will spend both time and effort. London has cut down developmental aid to India over the past few years and has many financial restrictions in place over investments, technology transfers and so on. Other European and Asian countries are vying for the same benefits it is seeking in the Indian economy and it will not be easy for them even with the historical angle in play. From India’s side, opening up its economy to foreign investment further, specifically in certain sectors such as insurance and retail, could renew the inflow from British companies. 

India – UK ties will remain healthy, but further strengthening requires both nations to go past their own limitations, which are mostly administrative, to lay out mutually beneficial strategies benefitting both economies.  The good thing is that today there are largely no risks in the relations between London and New Delhi, it’s all about how liberal both countries are with each other over economics, technology and their will for greater partnership. 




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