Whatever be its other failings, Britain's new government cannot be faulted for the way it has played to Indian ego. The charm offensive started with that famous reference to India in the Queen's speech and shows no sign of abating.
Last week, in what was seen as a special gesture Prime Minister David Cameron dropped by to say hello to the Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma, when he discovered that the latter was in Downing Street for a meeting with Business Secretary Vince Cable and other British officials. And these days, his Foreign Secretary William Hague seldom says anything on Britain's external relations without a hyperbolic mention of India.
In his first major speech a few days ago, Mr. Hague pointedly referred to India as a place where the “real economic action” was taking place and said Britain needed to “connect much more strongly” with this new power-house than it had done under the previous Labour government.
The “big” news, of course, is that Mr. Cameron is all set to visit India (the first Asian country after the NATO-occupied Afghanistan to be blessed with a prime ministerial visit so early in his innings) as part of his desire to seek an “enhanced” relationship with New Delhi.
Indians are, no doubt, mightily pleased with all the attention they are getting. Some of the self-congratulatory rhetoric in Indian diplomatic and business circles has to be heard to be believed. One prominent NRI businessman breathlessly hailed India as the “future” that had “arrived.” There is a new unmistakable swagger among visiting Indian ministers and officials.
And, well, why not? After being ignored for so long (remember the days when India House struggled to set up meetings for visiting Indian VIPs?) the idea of “empire striking back” can be rather seductive. But has the equation really changed much beyond rhetoric?
Just so that we don't get too carried away, Brits make it a point to remind us from time to time that India remains the single largest recipient of U.K. overseas aid and was given an estimated £1 billion between 2003 and 2008. The entry on India on the Department for International Development (DFID)'s website is headed with a photo of a “family group in a slum” in Patna and highlights the “scale” of the country's need for assistance noting: “The country has accomplished a great deal since independence in 1947, making slow but steady progress. However, despite its strong economic growth, the scale of its need is huge. Today 456 million Indians — 42 per cent of the population — live in poverty, comprising one-third of the world's poor.”
The truth is that for all the talk about the “new global India” ultimately the country is still largely defined by its poverty, illiteracy and corruption. The tone in London remains patronising.
For flavour, here's the opening paragraph of a newspaper article by International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell: “Today I want to deliver a message from the new Coalition Government of Britain directly to the millions of Indians who are battling against poverty and disease. Our message is this: the people and Government of Britain are on your side, and we will use every tool in our policy armoury — aid, trade, climate policy, diplomacy, business investment, and more — to champion fairness and prosperity for you. It is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the challenge that confronts us. Globally, over eight million children die before the age of five each year. More than 70 million children are missing out on primary education. A fifth of global child and maternal deaths, and cases of TB occur in India. Over 40 per cent of children in India are underweight and a child dies every 15 minutes from easily-preventable diseases.''
So this is how India is still perceived: “millions of Indians…battling against poverty and disease” and the former colonial power coming to their rescue!
What is new?
And now a reality check on the new government's supposed love-in with India and the hype over the proposed “enhanced relationship,” a term that since it first appeared in the Queen's speech two months ago is being repeated as a new mantra by both sides. But what does it really mean? Some excited commentators have even suggested that it is a code for a “special relationship” that, in the long run, could supplant Britain's historic and often controversial “special relationship” with America.
The fact is that nobody has a clue to what it means — either in Whitehall or South Block. The standard line in Indian circles is: let's see how it pans out. Mr. Sharma, speaking to reporters after his “focused” talks with Mr. Cameron, struggled to explain how this “enhanced relationship” would actually translate on the ground beyond saying that there would be greater focus on areas such as technology, education and trade, etc.
But wasn't that always the foreign policy goal of the two countries? Every ministerial visit in the past decade has invariably ended with both sides expressing their “resolve” to “further strengthen” existing relations and “expand” cooperation. What's new then?
Meanwhile, the suggestion that Labour “neglected” India as Mr. Hague alleged in his big foreign policy speech last week is simply misleading and Tory propaganda. It was Labour that did much of the heavy-lifting in raising the level of India-U.K. engagement by establishing what the two countries grandly hailed as a “strategic relationship.” And, occasional difficulties notwithstanding, even cynics acknowledge that New Delhi and London are closer today than they were in 1997.
Remind yourself who was in power before that and reach your own conclusions.