How not to sell aeroplanes to India

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Mohandas K. Gandhi is being used to sell fighter planes.  This government imagines that sticking a statue of this advocate of non-violence on Parliament Square will persuade Indians to buy the instruments of war we make. In fact it looks like what it is – a crass stunt, that makes Britain a laughing stock.

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For some time now, relations between Britain and India have not been good. Students want to study in the US or Australia, not Britain. There are some good research links, big Indian investment in British cars and steel, but compared to the rest of the world Britain’s connections to India have got worse over the last decade. Since 2010 Germany has been India’s biggest trading partner in the EU not the UK, and France gets the big armaments deals. British politicians keep going to India out of desperation not because there’s a special relationship. But panic makes us seem like a bunch of used car salesmen, desperate to sell at the expense of our dignity.

Our reputation for being dodgy dealers is 300 years old. The story goes something like this. A long time ago British merchants envied India’s prosperous economy and wanted to profit from it themselves. Instead of bargaining in a friendly way, they persuaded the British government to let them send ships and soldiers to conquer. But once Britain ruled India profit dried up, and the British persuaded themselves a lot of moralistic nonsense about going to India to do good not make money, ‘civilizing’ savages or bringing development to less developed people. It didn’t go well. Mis-governance caused famine, economic crisis, and massive rebellion. The imperial state went bankrupt. Britain had no choice but to quit, splitting India into two countries as they left to make sure they could get their troops out quickly.

Once they left, Britain turned away and didn’t look back, other than occasional grumpy complaints when statues of their ancestors were knocked down. Britain entirely forgot about India, until India’s economy started to do well and – surprise surprise, we’re back, only this time we’re going to play it nicely.

We can’t conquer this time. But just like 300 years before, the British seem incapable of getting on with Indians in an ordinary friendly way. It’s hardly surprising the response is polite at best.

Britain’s relationship with India is now dominated by stupid gestures and no real conversation. Our slogan is ‘Britain is Great’. Our diplomats deliver crass sales pitches. James Bevan, the High Commissioner, gives a speech telling Indians what he thinks they think about Britain is wrong, for example.

Germany’s relationship with India (as well as China) is based on long-lasting relationships between mid-level officials and businesspeople, and ties between cities.  The US relationship is strengthened by drinking sessions between American diplomats and officials from the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By contrast, the Brits alternative between self-promotion and aloof detachment, with no conviviality.

Why are things so weird?

Firstly, British governments think they can outsource the relationship with India to British Asians. Sometimes diaspora links are useful, sometimes dangerous. They were behind the connection with Tata. But they’ve allowed the UK to forget the South of India, where few migrants came from, but where India’s tech-boom was born for example. Most importantly, assuming British Indians will mediate has discouraged white Britons from cultivating connections to India. There is, for example, very little UK investment in Indian language skills.

Secondly, our history makes British diplomats and politicians think they know India. Elite Britons have an incurious kind of arrogance, believing they can discover the ‘real’ India for themselves without talking to their Indian colleagues. What India is is fixed in their minds, just as it was for nineteenth century colonial officials. India is still seen as a country of poor people manipulated by elites in need of being liberated by western aid, or a place of unparalleled spirituality, not a modern democracy with all the contradictions that involves.

Finally, there’s the history of empire itself. It is never mentioned: the British talk evasively about their ‘long connection’ to India. Indians are not bothered – they’ve long moved on. But when the official representatives of Britain talk, you have a sense there’s something lurking in their minds they’re embarrassed about.

We need a new approach, which allows deep and equal relationships between Britons and Indians to grow. A bit of honesty about British history would be a start. As Labour politicians in the first half of the twentieth century would happily admit, India was far poorer at the end than beginning of British rule. We should say that and prove we’ve learnt from our mistakes.

Then, we stop funding patronising aid projects or glitzy trips with half the cabinet staying in the most expensive hotels. Instead, the UK government needs to pay for ordinary businesspeople to spend time in the industries and institutions they’d do business with. We need fewer grand gestures and more practical connections between people who have real shared interests.

The early leaders of the Labour Party made good connections with people in India. They weren’t afraid to criticise the violence and profiteering of British imperialism. Labour’s support for Indian nationalism is something we should be proud of. Unless we return to the curious spirit which motivated Keir Hardie and Ramsey McDonald to visit India we won’t be selling any aeroplanes, and Britain will end up with a reputation for being good at only one thing: dodgy PR.

Jon Wilson teaches Indian History at King’s College, London. His book, India Conquered. Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016.

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