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Britannica redux

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants an "enhanced relationship" with India. It would be more accurate to talk about a revived relationship. In the old New Delhi-London equation, Britain was the benchmark for all things Western for all Indians. Pramit Pal Choudhuri writes.

delhi Updated: Jul 29, 2010 00:22 IST
Pramit Pal Choudhuri

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants an "enhanced relationship" with India.

It would be more accurate to talk about a revived relationship. In the old New Delhi-London equation, Britain was the benchmark for all things Western for all Indians.

But that has changed and Cameron has no illusions on this count.

"I know that Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India's future," he has said.

The old relationship has run its course for a number of reasons.

One, post-reforms India's economic interests are too large to be refracted through one nation. Britain, India's third-largest trade partner 10 years ago, is now in 13th place. Singapore invests four times more in India than Britain does.

Two, Britain's own outlook is less global and it has aligned its policies with those of Brussels. The lion's share of immigration opportunities, for example, is reserved for EU citizens.

"There used to be over 80 paths for Indians to become British residents," says one British immigration official.

"Now there are only five."

Three, America has taken up much of the cultural space once monopolised by Britain.

Indians prefer to emigrate or study in English-speaking nations, Indian firms are most comfortable with British-style business environments, and when Indians consume global cultural products, they prefer those from the Anglosphere. In all these fields, barring sports, the US today rules the roost in India.

Finally, there is no strategic facet in the relationship. Britain's only power presence in Asia is its role in the US-led war in Afghanistan.

London's line has been to quietly urge Washington to withdraw and not worry too much about the consequences.

New Delhi's policy has been the reverse. Whenever the world has debated Afghanistan, Britain and India have been at opposite ends of the policy spectrum.

Cameron is keen to arrest this downward trajectory in ties. The goal: a post-modern relationship based on the softer aspects of the global game — economics, values and culture.

"We will need a new relationship, one based on substance not superficialities," says international relations expert Amitabh Mattoo.

Economics will be key.

For example, it won't take much to consolidate Britain's position as a favoured acquisition ground for Indian firms, especially in technology.

The strategic relationship is likely to remain stunted. Britain is metamorphosing into a contemporary European state, wary of the use of force and obsessed with human rights and value-based policies.

India's economic rise and its tough neighbourhood will mould its character closer to that of a 19th century European power — ironically aided and abetted by domestic institutions that had their origins in Britain's imperial phase.

In that sense, it's Britannica redux for India.