The view from India

Mark Tully  

At an election results breakfast given by the British High Commissioner Sir James Bevan this morning, a journalist said to me, “You remember the old days, Mark. >The British elections were a huge event here. They don’t seem to matter much now.” I wouldn’t say they don’t matter. Even though the polling and the results have been competing with the national obsession about the >Salman Khan case and Parliament is in session, I, like other foreign journalists, have been kept busy in television studios and at least one network sent a top correspondent to London to cover the elections. I am not sure whether elections in any other country except the U.S. would warrant this sort of coverage. So, I think there is still considerable interest in how Britons vote. But it is not surprising that interest has decreased in an India that is reaching out to the world.

In the past there have been issues between the two countries which made the relationship interesting, particularly the relationship between two Prime Ministers. During the >Indo-Pakistan war, the normally mild-mannered Lal Bahadur Shastri was outraged by Harold Wilson’s condemnation of the decision to escalate the battle by sending Indian troops across the international frontier. Until that time the war had been confined to attacks across the cease-fire line.

Mr. Wilson made matters even worse by telling Mr. Shastri that no weapons that Britain had sent to India to fight against China should be used against Pakistan. Although Mr. Shastri died soon afterwards, the collapse of his relationship with Mr. Wilson continued to impact relations between Britain and India. It left the impression that the Labour Party, previously considered a friend of India, was hostile.

Mr. Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, did a lot to put that right by his joviality when he visited India. On landing at the airport he told ministers, diplomats, and journalists, “I am delighted to be in this great country,” then after a pause and with a big smile, he went on, “I hasten to add that doesn’t mean I have come to re-establish the British Raj.”

When the Thatcher neo-liberal evolution was taking place in Britain, Indira Gandhi was following her gareebi hatao socialist policies so it would have been natural to think that relations between the two Iron Ladies would be difficult, and that would have had an impact on relations between the two countries. There were very real differences too, for instance over Mrs. Gandhi’s demand that the British police take sterner action against supporters of Sikh separatism in Britain. When she came to India, I certainly got the impression that Mrs. Thatcher had no love for her counterpart. At one stage I found myself standing beside her husband Dennis. After some casual conversation, he said to me with some distaste, “They tell me Indira Gandhi is a bit of a Leftie.” However, I was told by Mrs. Gandhi’s trusted information adviser that, in fact, the two ladies got on very well with each other. He went so far as to say, “They have established a mutual admiration of each other.” I confirmed that during the last interview I did with Mrs. Gandhi on the eve of the Delhi Commonwealth Summit in Delhi. The unlikely friendship between the two Iron Ladies prevented their differences derailing the relationship between the two countries.

Will Modi visit the U.K.?

David Cameron’s relationship with Narendra Modi got off to a good start. When he was still Chief Minister of Gujarat, the British High Commissioner was the first Western diplomat to call on him, breaking the social boycott that followed the 2002 riots. When Mr. Cameron came to power in 2010, the first foreign country he visited was India. He has visited twice since. So he has clearly demonstrated the importance he gives to India, which is always a way to the heart of Indian leaders, and indeed Indians. But so far this has not been reciprocated by the globe-trotting Mr. Modi. He has visited Germany and France on his travels but he hasn’t crossed the channel to Britain yet. Perhaps he has been waiting for the election to be over. Now may be the time for Mr. Cameron to lure him to Britain with the promise of a Wembley Stadium packed with cheering British Indians. That will certainly notch up Indian interest in Britain for a short time.

But for the long term it will be the capitalist leanings of the two Prime Ministers that will give them something in common. If they maintain good personal relations, they could build on their common conviction to increase investment and trade. That will not revive the old love-hate relationship, which added such interest to the relationship, but it could be much more beneficial to both countries.

(Mark Tully is the former bureau chief of BBC, New Delhi.)

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 12:03:17 AM |

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