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Third generation defines India-UK ties

A new relationship based on trade, investment and mutual interest is slowly replacing the nostalgia and neglect that had defined ties so far. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2012 00:27 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of “enhancing” Britain’s relationship with India during his 2010 visit to India. He could have used the word “resurrecting”.

The two countries have spent the past four decades genially drifting apart, at both official and civil society levels. In some strategic areas, like Afghanistan, the two have even experienced friction.

In the immediate post-colonial period, Britain served as a benchmark for the West, even modernity, for most Indians. London saw India and the Commonwealth as necessary to its great power status.

By the 1970s, Britain had refocused its foreign policy on the US and, later, the European Union. During this time, India alternated between the US and the Soviet Union for geopolitical leverage to handle security problems with Pakistan and China.

And for the present generation of Indians, the West is largely defined as America.

This era of disinterest has led to a younger generation in both countries who have no interest about the other country.

A July Chatham House/YouGov poll showed 87% of Britons had no opinion, positive or negative, of India. A mirror image of this could be seen in a May 2010 poll by an Indian newspaper, which found 60% of Indians didn’t know Britain had held a general election.

India shifted to a higher rate of growth from the late 1980s onwards but the UK was not a beneficiary. Britain, India’s third largest trading partner in 2000-01, slipped to 13th place by 2009-10. It was only after Jaguar became Tata-owned that it opened showrooms in the sub-continent – well after every German luxury marque had done so.

While the flow of Indian students to the UK remained strong, Britain has, in recent years, been beaten or matched by others. Rough estimates say there are about 40,000 Indian students in Britain compared to 35,000 in Australia and 100,000 in the US.

Meanwhile, strategic ties withered as India looked to powers that had influence in Asia while Britain concentrated on the North Atlantic.

Tony Blair was among the first western rulers to believe it made sense to give India a broader multilateral role. But the goodwill he earned was largely lost during the Gordon Brown years, which were marked by British statements on Kashmir and bilateral bickering over Afghan policy.

All this led India to recognise that the British Foreign Office no longer possessed any special intuition regarding South Asia. Cameron acknowledged this, saying: “I know that Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India’s future. Your country has the whole world beating a path to its door.”

Over the past several years, however, a new Indo-UK relationship has been built on the foundation of an investment relationship. Britain is now the fourth-largest foreign investor in India. Over 70 Indian firms are listed on the London Stock Exchange. Tata’s $12-billion purchase of Corus was beaten by Vodafone’s $12-billion-plus acquisition of Hutchison Essar.

At the heart of the new India is its private corporate sector. And the latter has been more comfortable with Britain than any other country other than the US. This has arisen on the basis of cold commercial calculations, not nostalgia.

In effect, both countries are at last learning how much both have changed not merely from imperial times but even since the 1960s.

A new, third-generation relationship is emerging on a much more level playing field.

First Published: Aug 14, 2012 23:39 IST