No single issue in recent years has generated so much anti-India sentiment in Britain as the Rafale deal which many Britons see as a calculated ‘snub' to their country.
Last week, on BBC Question Time, regarded as a good indicator of British public opinion, the question that got the maximum applause was: why should Britain continue to “subsidise” India by “doling out” aid when it could afford to spend “billions of pounds” to buy French fighter jets?
The question was asked in the context of India's decision, announced a day earlier, to select a French firm over its British rival for a multi-billion dollar contract to supply fighter planes to the Indian Air Force, an issue that has generated an unprecedented level of hostility in Britain towards India.
International Development Minister Alan Duncan was shouted down as he struggled to explain that cutting off aid to India “would mean that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, will die who otherwise could live.”
“So what?” asked one woman. If India chose to spend its growing wealth on defence hardware rather than looking after its poor why should the “hard-working” British taxpayer be made to pay for it? Another lamented that Britain failed to get the “value for money” it gave to India.
The fury of the Question Time audience typified the dominant British reaction to the India-French deal. No single issue in recent years has generated so much anti-India sentiment in Britain as this deal which many Britons see as a calculated “snub” to their country. In my experience of reporting Britain I never witnessed such a level of public hostility towards India before — not even when Britain has been at the receiving end of Indian ire such as over London's “double standards” on terrorism and its faintly pro-Pakistan line on Kashmir. The anger is palpable, cuts across party lines and — fuelled by the right-wing media — has percolated down to ordinary Britons on the street. Some of the reaction, especially on the Right, has a whiff of the hard-to-die old cultural arrogance: “how dare a country, a former colony to boot, and a recipient of our aid dare snub us?” Expressions like “ingratitude” are being bandied around with shrill calls for scrapping the aid to India.
“Well that's gratitude! We give India £1bn in aid, THEY snub the UK and give France a £13bn jet contract,” read a headline in the Daily Mail leaving little to the imagination.
In the House of Commons
But such talk is not confined to country pubs or the fringe remnants of the Raj but has gone mainstream. In fact, it started with the House of Commons. MPs who hitherto only ever spoke about India in the most glowing terms — great democracy, great people, great country to do business with — sought to portray it as an unreliable partner and a destroyer of British jobs. Prime Minister David Cameron was mocked for wanting an “enhanced” relationship with India. The French victory was not only a failure of British diplomacy but a personal setback to Mr. Cameron in his campaign to establish Britain as a “partner of choice for India.”
Even an unabashed Indophile such as Labour MP and Chair of Labour Friends of India Barry Gardiner cried foul. He saw the deal as a sign of India moving away from Britain arguing that the delay in appointing a new High Commissioner to the U.K. “demonstrates that the Ministry for External Affairs in Delhi no longer see the U.K. as strategically vital to India's interests.”
Two entirely separate issues — India's decision to accept the French bid and the British aid to India — have been conflated to accuse India of “ingratitude” by suggesting that as a recipient of British money, New Delhi had a “moral” obligation to reciprocate and give it the contract. Crudely put, there were no free lunches.
“We give aid to India many times more than what France gives,” argued David Davis, a senior ruling Conservative Party MP, suggesting that therefore logically, the contract should have gone to Britain. The Indian move, he said, would destroy hundreds of British jobs at BAE Systems.
Another Conservative MP Peter Bone said it was a “myth” that “doling out billions of pounds out to countries like this exerts any influence whatsoever on the decisions made by those governments when purchasing equipment.” He wanted the aid money to be used “to help hard-pressed British families.”
The link between aid and the Indian decision was first suggested by the Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell. Asked to justify aid to India last year, he said its “focus” included “seeking to sell (British-built) Typhoon to India.” Those remarks have come to haunt the Government with Mr. Cameron under pressure to get the bang for his bucks.
The fact is that India has been extremely reluctant to take British aid and has made it clear on more than one occasion that it does not want it. As recently as last year, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament that “‘we do not require the aid' describing it as ‘peanuts' in terms of India's massive development efforts.”
Not only that, according to The Sunday Telegraph, former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, formally proposed an end to British aid from April 1, 2011, because of the “negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by DfID (the department for international development).” But British ministers insisted that they “had spent political capital” justifying the aid to their electorate and “it would be highly embarrassing if the Indian government then pulled the plug.”
Perhaps it's time for India to go ahead and pull that plug.