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Will Britain's India charm offensive work?

Soutik Biswas | 09:30 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Spectator magazine coverCan Britain charm India? wonders Spectator magazine with a cover illustration inspired by the oldest oriental cliché - a snake charmer (David Cameron, in this case, who is making his first visit as prime minister to India) trying to rouse a drowsy and a rather contended looking snake (India). Jo Johnson, former Financial Times Delhi correspondent and now a Conservative MP, writes in the magazine that Britain's relationship with India is outdated. A friend in Delhi says the cover cartoon is a good example: the inability to get over a colonial vision of a land of hippy snake charmers, lumbering elephants, sleepy hill stations and stubborn natives!

The magazine also hints at a confused UK view. On the one hand, it says, Britain's aid agencies tend to see India as an "impoverished aid recipient"; on the other, Mr Cameron and his ministers will be there "begging for India's money". Mr Cameron himself makes no bones about it. "Economic power is shifting - particularly to Asia - so Britain has to work harder than ever before to earn its living in the world. I'm not ashamed to say that's one of the reasons why I'm here in India," he wrote in The Hindu newspaper.

So has India outgrown Britain? Or, as my colleague Sanjoy Majumder wonders, does India really care? Or does the new India, as Mihir Bose suggests in an essay, value its British past but is no longer in awe of it?

Some of the colonial tradition endures - India's civil service (sluggish and in dire need of reform), its army (largely professional, non-sectarian and apolitical) and the English language (once the pan-Indian language of the elite which now everybody aspires to learn as a passport to jobs). Maybe even cricket, which sociologist Ashis Nandy famously described as an "Indian game accidentally discovered by the English".

But many believe that the British - and Indians themselves - have always overestimated the influence of Britain on its former colony. As early as in 1964 British broadcaster and author Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: "As the years pass, British rule in India comes to seem as remote as the battle of Agincourt." David Cameron in India

One reason, many Indian analysts say, is that most of the colonial experience was extremely unsavoury. They point to the tendency of the British rulers to cultivate local elites, empowering some of them and dividing the masses. (Lord Macaulay who spearheaded the founding of India's education system, suggested it set up natives who were "Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect".)

The collaboration with entrenched elites strengthened feudalism in what was already a deeply hierarchical society. Income, urbanisation, education and health care stagnated. Average economic growth in the first half of the century under British rule was 1%. Colonial trade was extractive and exploitative, leaving India poorer. Sunil Khilnani, a leading scholar, says "the cultural reach of British rule was steady as far as it went, but it was never very deep". Even the colonial understanding of this complex nation was suspect, many say. Winston Churchill famously predicted that if the British left India the country "will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages".

Post-Independence, in Jawaharlal Nehru's "non-aligned" India, Americans were seen by India as the new colonisers. But Indians continued to flock to the US chasing jobs and businesses. In the mid-1980s when the first big rock concert came to India, the Delhi audience sang along to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band's sardonic anthem, Born In the USA. "I didn't know you knew the lyrics!" the surprised singer said. Over the decades, as India has found its place in the world economy, the old distrust is gone, and the civilian nuclear deal has brought the two countries closer than ever before. Indians adore Bill Gates. The young love listening to Black Eyed Peas and Green Day and watching Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise.

It will not be easy for Mr Cameron to retrieve lost ground: America's trade with India is three times that of Britain's, India is not happy with restrictions on non-EU migration and politics - like the Labour Party's insistence on raising the Kashmir issue in the past - can end up souring relations. "I know Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India's future," Mr Cameron says. Both India and Britain will he hoping that he walks the talk.


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