George Lucas’ epic space western Star Wars: A New Hope opens with the drastically exciting scene of Princess Leia’s space transport haplessly evading the intergalactic menace of an imperial battleship in rapid pursuit. When Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London at the end of October and early November respectively a similar sequence of events seemed to be played out. For whilst the red carpet was rolled out for Xi Jingping for an official state visit and the media feted the ruler of a once reviled one party state, the Indian leader’s British sojourn seemed to go relatively unreported. The Paris massacre in part played a role, drawing media and public attention away from domestic affairs. But it was hard to escape the feeling that Modi’s visit, much as Leia’s spacecraft, had been swallowed up by the imperial Chinese monster.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Buried on page 110 of the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto was a dazzling pledge to “promote our enlightened national interest and work to establish a new special relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy.” The Coalition Government was as good as its word, their time in office seeing three official UK trade delegations head over to India, and a massive investment in the UK Trade & Investment body in southern Asia, opening nine regional offices across the sub-continent. Britain is now the second-largest overseas investor in India. In fact it’s hard to go outside in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu now without seeing a Vodafone marketing banner. Indians from Chennai to Delhi boast how easy it is to now to obtain a UK visa when they want to visit their great-auntie living in Wolverhampton. Faces fall when you ask when they can next expect to visit their uncle in New York. In fact, the UK even now has more consulate offices in southern India than the United States. Ever wondered where all that overseas aid is going? It’s a running joke in Chennai that the only patch of pot-hole free road and pavement in the city is outside the UK High Commission.
How times change. New Labour’s decade in power saw Anglo-Indian relations enter a prolonged malaise. Tony Blair famously “didn’t do history”, and New Labour seemed ill at ease with a country so closely associated with the wrongs of our imperial past. It is a tricky relationship to negotiate, requiring both emotional delicacy and business nous. Gordon Brown’s first official visit as Prime Minister in 2007 was a disaster, overshadowed by the Shilpa Shetty vs Jade Goody Celebrity Big Brother race row. Then David Miliband, our supposedly smooth-talking Foreign Secretary, was virtually booed out of the country after he broached that most sensitive of topics, Kashmir, and couldn’t seem to remember any Indian politicians’ first names. His promotion of the cause of the ‘untouchables’ just looked patronising from a foreigner unable to tell you the date of Indian independence.
David Cameron’s first trip to India back in 2006 was also, quite literally, a car crash. The then-Leader of the Opposition’s convoy managed to strike a 55-year-old domestic servant on an £1/day salary. Anyone who has ever been in a road incident in India knows that stereotypically, the first thing you do is come out swinging. You have to be the loudest, most confrontational person in the argument and shout down any who might question your ability as a safe road user – regardless of your role in a collision. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told David Cameron’s team this and he became the laughing stock of the Indian tabloid press when he made a public apology at the ensuing press conference stating how “shocked and saddened” he was by the “tragic accident.” So when David Cameron stood on the stage of Wembley Stadium on Friday 13th November in front of 60,000 cheering Indians he must have wondered where it had all gone so right.
The post-2010 success of British policy in India rests on two elements. Firstly, we British have finally realised that the Indians don’t want to be seen as a country of entrenched poverty, endemic corruption and shocking infrastructure, but a waking power of the First World. Visiting foreign dignitaries on state visits shouldn’t waste their time with the untouchables in the slums of Mumbai. They should be climbing the Antilia, the most expensive private residence in the world. This is a country in which wealth, status and power are still intimately linked to deference. Indians don’t want their leaders slumming it on EasyJet flights to Ibiza, but taking India Force One. Unsurprisingly, then, the unveiling of a Ghandi statue in Parliament Square in March 2015 was a hit story on the Times of India’s website, millions of Indians retweeting an image of a smiling David Cameron clasping the hand of a Arun Jaitley, the Indian Finance Minister.
Secondly, like it or not, the election of Modi has been a game-changer. The jury is still out on Modi for more reasons than one; the extent of his Hindu fanaticism, his record as an economic reformer whilst Chief Minister of Gujarat and most significantly, his ties to the 2002 Muslim pogroms in the state. He is scorned by Indian western intellectuals who long ago gave up speaking Hindi like Pankaj Mishra. Perhaps inevitably then, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, with more votes to his name than any other human being in history, met a cold reception from many in Westminster.
For now, Cameron’s strategy of enthusiastic embrace seems to be the right approach. Much as Princess Leia’s rebel alliance eventually triumphs over the imperial monolith, India has everything in its favour over the next fifty years in its great race with China, from a booming population to a free press. Xi Jinping may have stolen the limelight this time, but future British politicians may silently thank David Cameron and his government for rekindling a friendship which Britain needs in order to prosper in the twenty-first century.