By Swapan Dasgupta
Among the many disastrous decisions Jawaharlal Nehru took in his 16-year stint as Prime Minister was the appointment of V.K. Krishna Menon as India's first High Commissioner in London. The wiry and irascible Menon had many things going for him. Sadly, these didn't include tact and diplomacy. A familiar figure in the radical circles of Britain who was on first name terms with most members of the post-War Labour Government, Menon could never make the transition from being the indefatigable campaigner for Indian independence to becoming a grand representative of the newly-born Indian state.
There were many tales of Menon's caustic tongue that used to do the rounds in his heydays. One we particularly relished centred on an unnamed Englishman who was very impressed by Menon's eloquence and oratory. "You speak such good English", the man complimented the High Commissioner with, perhaps, a touch of condescension. Menon's retort was characteristically acerbic: "You, Sir, picked up the language. I, Sir, learnt it."
In the first flush of Independence, when it was natural to demonstrate that civilised self-government was preferable to imperial paternalism, Indians were prone to exaggerated self-righteousness. They took offence when none was intended, and a sneering, preachy, West-baiting became the signature tune of foreign policy. Yet, far from building India's reputation as a self-confident nation, it painted an image of boorishness. Indian officials were perceived in Western capitals as having a monumental chip on their shoulders.
It's not that the West didn't have its own attitude problems. The baggage of old imperial stereotypes were carried over till the 1970s and reinforced by images of material deprivation. Mother Teresa became an iconic figure in the Christian world, not merely because of her good works among the destitute and dying of Calcutta, but she unwittingly bolstered the continuing relevance of a 'civilising mission'.
The Anglicised Indian elites were a special target of derision: everything from their carefully preserved Received Pronunciation (something the BBC now seem to have consciously eschewed), their partiality to Marks & Spencer underwear and fine china from the Harrods sale, and their bewildering attachment to cricket and P.G. Wodehouse were seen as evidence of uncaring venality by a new Britain that feigned classlessness. Last week's Guardian had an agonised article by Pankaj Mishra, a doughty class warrior, charging British Prime Minister David Cameron of tickling "the vanity of the Indian elite" and "severing of Britain's old links with India's great mass of ordinary people."
The provocation was a proposal to slash the needless £250 million overseas aid to India on the ground that India is in a position to pay for its own development. Putting overpaid 'development consultants' out of work may be cruel but hard-headedness demands that Britain shifts tack from playing Good Samaritan to once again developing an appetite for business.
The extent to which self-purification gestures such as playing Avatar and creating a kerfuffle at the shareholders' meeting of Vedanta can be self-defeating was told to me at a convivial High Table dinner at an Oxford college last month. An Indian corporate had proposed to an Oxford college its interest in funding a professorial chair (an expensive proposition). In return it requested the college to organise a series of extra-mural lectures and workshops at a new campus in India. The proposal was fair and would have been operational. However, an Oxford don protested that the sponsor was being accused by jholawalas of unfair land acquisition in India which, naturally, made the deal non-kosher for an Oxford that has prospered on the bequest of Cecil Rhodes.
It is reassuring that when told of the state of play, the Indian corporate is believed to have told the college to take a flying leap.
Today, India is in a position to explore many alternatives. However, there aren't too many Indians who have the social confidence to put self-interest above false prestige. In trying to refashion an old relationship in a new idiom, Cameron tried to do just that last week. But a special relationship based on equality can't happen if one side idolises Menon and the other side sees in Mishra the authentic India.