PM_Modi's_UK_tourPrime Minister Modi's UK tour, meeting former Prime Minister David Cameron

By Dr Nikita Sud
Associate Professor at the Oxford Department of International Development

A longstanding relationship
The relationship between India and the UK is an old one. Trade in pepper, for instance, can be traced to ancient times. Recipes containing pepper, which is indigenous to Kerala in southern India, are found in the Roman cookbook Apicius. 

The longue durée view tends to be swept aside in the standard narrative. In the latter, the Indo-UK relationship was inaugurated in the year 1600, with the East India Company receiving a royal charter to trade with the East Indies. Eventually Company Raj gave way to the Imperial Raj. 

India became independent in 1947. The Indian National Congress led a largely peaceful freedom movement under the leadership of MK Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. Furthermore, the end of the Second World War demanded that the former imperial powers, ranging from Britain to Japan, focus their energies on rebuilding their economies and polities.ModiPrime Minister Modi at talks with President Obama and other world leaders

Appropriating the legacy of empire

Despite the passage of time, and sweeping changes in postcolonial societies, empire continues to be a point of reference for some, as evidenced in this quote.

 ‘If the “Leave” side wins, it will indeed be necessary to negotiate a large number of trade deals at great speed. But why should that be impossible? We have become so used to Nanny in Brussels that we have become infantilised, incapable of imagining an independent future. We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny Civil Service. Are we really unable to do trade deals? We will have at least two years in which the existing treaties will be in force.’

Boris Johnson, in The Telegraph, 16 March 2016Boris Johnson

Leaving BoJo and Co. aside, for most people, empire is an anachronism. Yet, its vestiges are all around us. I will argue that Indians have appropriated and at times subverted the legacy of colonialism, including in the building of India’s contemporary growth story. The English language illustrates my point.

Under the influence of Thomas Macaulay, a member of the Governor General’s Council, English was introduced as a medium of instruction in select Indian schools after 1835. The idea was to create a class of administrators and intermediaries between Empire and its Indian colonies. English continues to be widely used in India, for matters of government, education and general communication. In fact, there are more English speakers in India today than there are in the UK. After the US, India has the most English speakers in the world. In terms of percentage, this is around 11.4% of the Indian population, i.e. 138 million people.  The number is larger when one includes people with some conversational ability in English, amounting to over a third of Indians. This is the largest English speaking population in the world. As the UK woos India, India is playing to its own galleries and compulsions. Even on British soil, we witness the politics of trade, business and democracy—not the UKs, but its own.Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive (1725-74) after Nathaniel Dance

Indian English can be gloriously idiosyncratic. The chutneyfication of the language is evident in the following figure.Chutney

PM_Modi's_UK_tourModification and appropriation are universal processes. The thoroughly anglicised chicken tikka masala is not to be found in India. The same goes for the generic curry joint. 

Language and culture meld into all spheres of life, including the economic. It is widely believed that India’s contemporary growth story is built on its success in the Information Technology (IT) industry and in IT Enabled Services. IT and ITES generated $146 billion in revenue last year. The IT revolution can be attributed to India’s prowess in engineering, computer hardware and software, and technology transfer. However, the IT sector would not exist without a large, young, English-speaking workforce. In a way, English has underpinned India’s economic growth. 

In a globalised world, with circular flows of culture, ideas, capital and to an extent people, the very companies that are at the forefront of engineering and IT-driven industries in India, are also major investors in the UK today. Tata, Infosys and Wipro are cases in point. There are more than 800 major Indian-owned businesses in the UK. They employ over 110,000 people. The largest of these companies, numbering around 40, have turnovers of over GBP 250 million. It is not surprising that the UK wants to build on the strong cultural and economic relationship shared by the two countries, particularly in these turbulent times. 

To each their own: India, the UK and Brexit

One of the points made repeatedly by the Leave Campaign was that EU bureaucracy was hampering economic relations with emerging economies such as India and China. Exiting the EU would allow the UK to negotiate a new trade deal with India. This would be mutually beneficial, for instance, in the arena of tariffs which could be brought down on both sides.

Post-Brexit, as we know well, the UK government scrambled to gain a semblance of order amongst the political and economic chaos. Within a fortnight of the result being announced, then UK Business Secretary Sajid Javid had rushed to India. He was there to discuss the trade relationship, expecting this to get ‘stronger and stronger.’then UK Business Secretary Sajid JavidThen UK Business Secretary Sajid Javid

Interestingly, as commercial relationships are renegotiated in the aftermath of Brexit, the people doing some of the thinking and writing of the new deals will be Indians—not just for the Indian side, but also for the UK one. As then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond admitted to a Committee of MPs soon after Brexit, the UK would need ‘friendly governments’ to help bolster its staff of trade negotiators.

‘The government will have to acquire additional trade negotiation resources… We will look to friendly governments to assist us, as well as seeking to hire the best resources available on the open market.’

On the Indian side, there has been some expectation that if migration from the EU declines, highly skilled migrants from India will find it easier to enter the UK. This is largely wishful thinking in a scenario where no one quite knows how migration will shape up in post-Brexit Britain.

On the downside, Indian Companies, like those from other countries such as Japan, have expressed concern about the blockading effect of the exit vote. London and the UK are attractive in themselves, but more so as gateways to Europe and its market.

As the Indian PM said on his visit to the UK in Nov 2015: ‘As far as India is concerned, if there is an entry point for us to the EU, that is the UK.’ Now that the entry point might be restricted, or even closed, Indian owned companies in the UK, like Jaguar Land Rover, will have to rethink their business models. Many have significant sales in the EU, and some will contemplate shutdowns and exits. Frankfurt may emerge as a more attractive business and finance capital than London. Thus after the result of the referendum was announced, Tata Sons indicated that it would be review its strategy and business in the UK, as ‘access to markets and to a skilled workforce will remain important considerations.’ (Tata Sons’ press release, 24 June 2016).

Other companies will seek to make good on falling values of the pound, hoping to conduct bargain basement deals. As Anand Mahindra of the Mahindra Group put it, ‘With the lower pound, if there are some hi-tech assets which can be acquired in the UK, suddenly this makes the UK a much better shopping mall for Indian companies.’

Clearly, a ‘what’s in this for us’ mentality prevails. India and Indian capital are looking towards the future, whereas UK politicians’ allusions to empire, or the assumed camaraderie of the commonwealth are based on the past.

Professor Nikita Sud (Wolfson)The Alumni Weekend at Oxford this September where Dr Sud gave her talk on this subject with Professor Rana Mitter 

Speaking to different constituencies

The politics of self-interest was amply on display during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK. Press reports stressed his red carpet welcome, an address to parliament, meetings with business leaders, lunch with the queen, etc. At the same time, the Indian media gave extensive coverage to Mr Modi’s roadshow at Wembley Stadium. The event reportedly attracted 60,000 of Modi’s fans, mostly Indians who are UK residents or citizens.

The diaspora is a very important constituency for the Indian Prime Minister. Its members do not vote, and cannot directly affect political fortunes back home. However, the diaspora offers substantial donations for political and social causes linked to Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party and its network of affiliates. Members of the diaspora are influential in their communities in India. Some campaigned in the 2014 general election that brought Modi to power. It is this group that the PM was wooing at Wembley. That the UK Prime Minister and his wife were present at the event added to its sheen. We can be sure that clips from the Wembley jamboree will be played during canvassing in future Indian elections. Modi’s rockstar-like performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden has already featured in election propaganda.

Along with the Wembley event, another picture generated coverage and debate. This was the image of a modified swastika and a sword-wielding Modi projected onto the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, with the words ‘Modi Go Back.’ Awaaz, a network of organisations that advocate peace and secularism, and have campaigned against religious intolerance in South Asia, were behind the pictorial protest. In particular, they were alluding to Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat, western India, when he was Chief Minister of the state. 

As the UK woos India, India is playing to its own galleries and compulsions.Even on British soil, we witness the politics of trade, business and democracy—not the UKs, but its own.

Dr Nikita Sud gave a version of this talk at the largest ever Alumni Weekend in Oxford this year (16-18 September 2016).

Images © Oxford University Images, John Cairns, Shutterstock