Part superpower-in-the-making, and part infuriatingly dysfunctional democracy — the India that Pratibha Patil’s recent tour of the United Kingdom showcased was truly a chronicler’s delight.
The visit presented a kaleidoscope of contrasts. British and Indian functions made for charming opposites: on the one hand was the British obsession with precision and order, and on the other the Indian inability to be anything but unruly and chaotic.
Equally striking was the divergence between official United Kingdom’s heavy wooing of newly ascendant India, and the English public and media’s grand indifference to what to all appearances was a great story: The spectacle of the once imperial power wining and dining its former colony.
Anyone attending the Indian High Commission’s reception for Ms Patil at a London hotel would surely have marvelled at Indian disorderliness having survived over a century of stern British rule. If the entrance was blocked by crowds stampeding to get in, bedlam reigned in the dining hall with the guests resolutely resisting the organisers’ attempts to usher them into their designated seats.
More commotion followed once the organisers decided to invite the guests, table by table, for a photo-op with the visiting President. The invitees rose all at once, and rushed to the dais. The result was a hilarious mismatch between the names being called out and those turning up to be photographed. A fresh, young face among a group of supposed industrialists turned out to be Olympics gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra.
A surprise guest at the function was 2009 Nobel winner for Chemistry, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. Everyone wanted a piece of the man whose discomfort at the fussing was only too evident. Mr. Ramakrishnan would tell an agency reporter later that his Nobel was a “bigger deal in India” than in Cambridge where he was one of 15 Nobel laureates. Yet at the High Commission his presence would cause mayhem, with fans jamming the traffic to and from the presidential podium.
At a briefing by the Queen’s staff the same evening, the Indian media accompanying the President got a foretaste of what awaited us the following morning at the Windsor Castle, where the President and the Queen would arrive in a horse-carriage procession. Each of us was given a booklet with minute-by-minute instructions and a colour-coded card that showed the precise spot where we would stand for the five-odd hours it would take for the ceremony to end.
At the appointed hour, we were led into our respective enclosures. We took in the elegance of the 900-year old, muted grey castle with its grass and gravel quadrangle. But of course there was no question that we could stop to take pictures or try and exchange our coded cards or wander around for a better view of the palace. “No straying” we were told, and that was the way it was, never mind that it had started to drizzle, our legs ached, and we were hungry. We longingly thought of the many different ways we could beat the system in India.
Yet the ceremony had only to begin for us to forget our ordeal. The quadrangle was doused in brilliant colour and piped music as the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh emerged from the Sovereign Entrance in their chocolate brown Bentley. They would soon return with their Indian guests in a ceremonial procession.
The visual extravaganza we witnessed over the next half hour left us spellbound. There was no way to describe it except in clichés and hyperbole; indeed, overused as the expression was, this was true pomp and pageantry. The splendid Australian State Coach brought the Queen and Ms Patil. Following them in their own separate coaches were the two spouses, Prince Charles and Camilla and Indian officials forming the Presidential entourage.
We could have set our watches by the military precision of the pageant. At exactly 20 past 12, the Guard of Honour gave a royal salute and minutes later the Mounted Band of the Blues and Royals were leading the way for a spectacular marchpast by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
The next day we found ourselves at India House (for the handing over of Gandhi memorabilia to Ms Patil) — to some more official fumbling. The organisers had forgotten to provide for the visiting Indian media which meant that we would spill out of chairs hastily placed in the aisle.
By evening we were again in “prim and proper” mode — this time for a State banquet hosted by the Lord Mayor at the magnificently-built Guildhall. The invitation came with a map, instructions and a chart showing the exact seating arrangement. In all, 700 invitees would take their seats behind 18 tables — ladies in billowing period costumes, judges and aldermen in their cascading laces and scarlet robes besides a host of fashionable Londoners showing off their designer labels. Ms Patil arrived in a procession led by State marshals, trumpeters playing fanfares and sword and maces bearers. The banquet proceeded like clockwork — grace was duly said, toasts were raised and the invitees slow-clapped as the State guest departed, again in a procession.
We were in turn impressed and irked by British discipline that kept us imprisoned through the visit. At the Queen’s Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games on our last day in London, our hosts ruled out our leaving our allotted seats to take close-up photos. As for chatting up the Indian athletes, “no way”. As we filed out of the venue, a colleague turned back to look at the podium, only to be told by our minder to “look ahead and keep walking.”
And yet, really, what was the iron discipline and fussing all about? The U.K. was an ageing, declining power, hit by recession and looking somehow to hold its place in the comity of nations. India was messy, the bulk of its people were desperately poor, and even the better-off exasperated with their disregard for rule. Yet in a world that measured a country’s worth by its money, India, with its vast markets and a recession-time growth of 6.5 per cent, counted for more than the U.K. And indeed, if the Queen made her Indian guest feel special, which she did by all accounts, it was in recognition of this truth.
The Queen’s staff spent valuable time telling the Indian media of the charm offensive laid out for Ms Patil, who was only the seventh State guest since 1998 to stay in the Windsor castle. The Queen’ royal collection displayed painstakingly selected items of common interest, including a shawl made from threads spun by Mahatma Gandhi and given over as a wedding gift to Elizabeth II, and the Queen spent an extra hour at the banquet where she toasted India thus: “Five years ago, our two governments launched a new strategic partnership which was founded on the sure knowledge that India’s emergence on the world stage would be one of the main forces shaping the 21st century.”
Prince Charles intensely quizzed Minister of State for Human Resource Development D. Purandareswari on the Indian education scene, and was stunned when told of the more than 500 Indian universities. The education market came up repeatedly in conversations that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Leader of the Opposition David Cameron had with the Indian delegation.
Clearly it made business sense to court India. Yet there was also the U.K public-media indifference to the Indian President’s visit. As a rare English hack present at the Windsor ceremony remarked, “it will take a while before the altered U.K-India equation sinks in.”