One of the most common talking points at recent gatherings of the Indian community in London is: When is Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming here? The response depends on who is asked. Young BJP enthusiasts assume an air of importance and claim to have inside knowledge; officials believe he won’t come visiting until after the May elections in Britain and not before the new government in London settles in, which means not before the year-end; while those with a longer memory wonder if he will visit this year at all.
Not a few have noticed that it is nearly a decade since an Indian Prime Minister visited Britain (Manmohan Singh visited in 2006), while British prime ministers visited India four times during the same period (Gordon Brown in 2008 and David Cameron three times since assuming office in 2010). There has clearly been something of a ‘one-way traffic’ in recent years, even though the 2004 joint declaration between the two countries envisaged annual summits. All this while, the relationship has been renamed in London as a ‘new special relationship’ (akin to Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States) or ‘strategic partnership’, while the Indian side has not been exactly enthusiastic. If the late Tory grandee Enoch Powell was right in once summarising India-Britain relations as a ‘shared hallucination’, it is only one side that seems to be doing most of the hallucinating.
India has changed since the early 1990s and its international priorities have similarly changed as it looks for more resourceful partners to grow (read the US and Japan). Britain no longer has the same resonance in India it once had, and India too is no longer what used to be called a ‘Third World’ country. As India becomes a major investor and creator of jobs in an economically-challenged Britain (its aid to India ends this year), the courtier has become the courted. One indication, if any were needed, is the beeline British ministers are making for India after the Modi government came to power.
Relations between the two countries at the moment are nowhere near the acrimony of 1997 when former Prime Minister IK Gujral termed Britain a ‘third-rate power’ after an overzealous foreign secretary Robin Cook had offered to mediate on Jammu & Kashmir during a visit to Islamabad, but they are not upbeat either. Gujral was simply repeating what Lord Curzon had said at the turn of the last century: ‘While we hold on to India, we are a first-rate power. If we lose India, we will decline to a third-rate power’, but his remarks on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to New Delhi had marked a new low in India-Britain relations. Much happens between India and Britain on ‘auto-pilot’, and there is a banality and taken-for-grantedness about the multi-level interactions between the two countries. The legacy of the empire ensures that Britain is omnipresent in everyday life in India. One less-known success story in recent times has been the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), set up in 2006, which has seen over 25,000 exchanges of academics, researchers, staff and students as part of over 1,000 partnerships.
Some in London believe that thanks to their long shared history, the two countries know each other so well that they are like old friends who don’t really need to meet often to sustain their relationship. But such near-colonial views ignore the reality of a new and increasingly confident India insisting on being treated as an equal, and on its terms. They also ignore India’s growing ire at Britain refusing to hand over Indian fugitives living in Britain (such as Tiger Hanif) on grounds of human rights, or not clamping down on some television channels radicalising the Sikh community, or ignoring fund-raising in Britain for anti-India activities. While the rest of the world has consciously decoupled India and Pakistan, British foreign policy is seen as continuing its traditional pro-Pakistan tilt in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The end-result of the rehearsed feel-good words before every ministerial visit to India, or of the ‘new special relationship’, has not exactly been substantial. Behind the many ‘headline’ statements and figures about investment in each other’s countries, trade remains abysmally low and points of friction remain.
A recent example of bristling in Indian circles was evident during the January 27 gala reception to celebrate Republic Day in London. Attended by leading lights of the British Indian community, the Cameron government’s representative at the event was Priti Patel, a junior minister who is also supposed to be the ‘Indian diaspora champion’ (Britain has the largest Indian diaspora after the US). The buzz of conversation in the ballroom of Grosvenor House picked up as soon as she started her speech; most present ignored it and termed it an ‘insult’ and ‘patronising’ that the British government would not deign to send a Cabinet minister to attend the major event.
Britain was the first western country to re-establish links with Narendra Modi after it had diplomatically boycotted him after the 2002 Gujarat riots, but Britain has not figured high on his radar after he assumed office in New Delhi. Modi chose to visit the US and Australia, among his first foreign visits, and is now due to visit Germany and China in the coming months. There have been strenuous efforts in recent weeks in London and New Delhi to get Modi to visit London to inaugurate Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square. But this is now unlikely due to the political message such a visit will mean for the ruling Conservative Party before the May 7 elections, particularly given the increasingly influential ‘Indian vote’.
No major agreement has been signed between Britain and India in recent years, and observers with long memories insist the relationship has plateaued, if not stagnated. As the colonial baggage sits light on an India with a large young population, it may not reach the level of Powell’s ‘shared hallucination’ again, but a Modi visit will certainly help rejuvenate and revive the potential of a relationship that has seen challenging times since 1947.