Sunday, February 12, 2012

Is India actually in need of British patronage?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Having been a frequent traveller to London for the past 38 years, it has been interesting observing the shifting British attitudes to India and Indians.

There was a time in the mid-1970s when every Indian was eyed with suspicion as a potential illegal over-stayer by the immigration officers at Heathrow. Those were the days when the salespeople in upmarket establishments paid no heed to the shabbily dressed Indian shopper. They focussed on rich Americans, Arabs and, of course, the Japanese tourist. Sometime in the early-1980s, I recall visiting an Indian banker staying at the Savoy and being asked by the supercilious receptionist: “Does he work in the kitchen?”

All that, as they say, is history. Thanks to all the BRIC hype and the mood of gloom and doom in Britain, Indians (from India) are automatically assumed to be either IT millionaires or someone worth cultivating. The riches of India were the talk of London in the early-18th century when Lord Clive was astonished by his own moderation. Some 300 years later the wheel has turned full circle. Once again, and this time thanks in no small measure to Bollywood, India is beginning to be seen as a potential milch cow. The perception may well be grudging but is nevertheless real.

This is why Indians should be more understanding of the sense of outrage in Britain at the government’s decision to persist with its Rs 1,940 crore aid to India. The sum involved may be peanuts when compared to India’s development budget but that sum could help save many public libraries in Britain and even add to the resources available to the National Health Service. Given its parlous public finances, Britain just can’t afford to underwrite well-meaning but ineffective anti-poverty initiatives in India. The money, however small, can be better utilised in Britain, for Britons.

Why was India—with enough of its own money to burn on useless do-gooding initiatives—the biggest recipient of British aid in the first place? If the idea was to use the goodwill of generosity to influence India’s combat aircraft purchases, the ploy hasn’t worked and the British Government stands embarrassed for even suggesting it would. Why not give the aid to countries that have difficulties generating resources internally, say some.

The reason may have a lot to do with how the champions of enlightenment perceive themselves in Britain. There was a time, particularly in the heydays of Empire, when the notion of the wider good was viewed through the prism of self-interest. The creation of an elaborate railway network in India didn’t come about because the guardians of Empire wanted to promote religious pilgrimages and tourism. There were hard-nosed strategic and commercial calculations that served British investors and British industry and which were appreciated by the Indians. British development assistance serves no such purpose now. It merely makes a minusculity in Britain feel great about doing good.

It is this gratuitousness that has come to define British public attitudes in many spheres. I recently met a British diplomat who boasted having visited some 22 states in India before taking up his appointment in Delhi. His desire to look beyond the drawing rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi was admirable. But what would be the reaction if an Indian diplomat decides to spend three months traipsing around Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Swindon and Hartlepool before reporting for work at India House in Aldwych? Yes, his understanding of Britain would be enhanced considerably. He could conceivably also be the candidate of choice for the post of Aid Commissioner if India chose to re-plough the Pound 238 Million of British aid back into the disadvantaged areas of the British Isles. But since traditional diplomacy isn’t about “doing good” but promoting mundane things such as trade, culture and keeping a good table, it would be a noble wasted effort.

The problem with British aid to India is that it is misplaced. Post-colonial angst may be good for purposeful seminars involving NGOs and other international poverty brokers. However, that culture of goodness doesn’t resonate with a hard-nosed India that expects Britain to be equally hard-nosed. Good diplomacy and charity can’t go hand in hand.

Sunday Times of India, February 12, 2012 

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