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United Kingdom and India - Strategic Partnership

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India and the United Kingdom have a strangely embedded relationship. In the four centuries of official and unofficial contact the relationship has seen many turning points. Despite its many challenges the relationship has endured the tests of time. And the tests have been numerous. But the shared sense of the past and common interests in the future, ensure that the two countries cooperate and communicate in an enduring manner. The cooperation and communication is not always savoury or pleasant, but it endures and that is testimony to this bond. Hurdles of the past and of the present, have not been able to undermine the relationship. Which is its innate strength. Hurdles there are many.


The encounter with India began as a trading application for the United Kingdom and evolved into a territorial conquest of the country. Its success in expanding the hold on India also resulted in the rise of the United Kingdom as a global power. But for India the United Kingdom would have remained a middling seafaring nation, adroit at trade and battling regional European rivalries. It supplanted its predecessors in the empire building game thanks largely to its success in India. That ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ was primarily due to its dominant position in India.

As a result, the romance of India has endured in the United Kingdom. India is still regarded as the pinnacle of UK's global position, at a certain period of time. There are various reasons why the colony came to be regarded as its ‘jewel in the crown’ and numerous other cliches that came to be coined. An Indian experience was compulsory in order to rise in the ranks of the British elite. Vast fortunes were made in India, many battles fought, most won and a few lost and memories passed on from generation to generation about its exoticism. An ‘Indian Summer’ is a uniquely British phenomenon. Testimony to an everlasting bond. India made United Kingdom the world’s greatest empire in history.

There is a reverse romance as well, in the case of United Kingdom and India. Its public manifestation is of course the craze of cricket in India. With its mass appeal cricket is a mania that faces little competition. Other than that there is an enduring appeal in India’s elite for United Kingdom. It continues to attract a very high number of visitors from India, drawn by a common legacy, expressed in a language that both understand as natives. India absorbed English as its own, more than it has done with any other language from outside. English can no longer be termed a ‘foreign’ language in India. So much so that the language has absorbed Indian words to a significant degree as well. Proficiency of the language is equal in both countries.

The empire, on the other hand, was an unequal relationship, as they always are. What began as trading arrangements between the East India Company and the Mughal emperor mutated into a colonial encounter as curry was replaced by conquest. As with all colonial ventures this too was a brutal and exploitative arrangement. It was a one way relationship, based on maximising gains for the occupier. That arrangement has now been overturned. And with the Indian acquisition of Jaguar, Land Rover, Tetley Tea and Corus Group (formerly British Steel), the empire has almost been reversed. A couple more marquee brands will complete the process of reversing the empire in toto. Indian investments in United Kingdom are amongst the largest in the country. Both countries share a vibrant trading regime.

Despite the bonhomie that prevails there is still a lot to be done, particularly in spheres that constitute vital national interests. A test case is the issue of Afghanistan and the flip-flop that remains a constant feature of NATO-ISAF policy in the beleaguered country. India seems to have learnt lessons from 19th century experiences better than 21st century Britain. For there to be peace in Afghanistan both countries have to cooperate with Kabul, on equal terms and without attention being diverted by the jugglery of others. Departure from India unmade United Kingdom as the global power. Now both need to help each other in bringing peace, regionally as well globally.

 


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