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India – The emerging ‘special relationship’ between India and the UK

Britain seeks a ‘new special relationship’

In the distant past, India marked British state visits with great fanfare, even altering the urban fabric to indelibly mark the trace of a historic regal procession. For the Prince of Wales’ tour in 1876, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II ordered all Jaipur’s buildings to be painted pink (hence the ‘Pink City’ sobriquet); and Bombay created a waterfront monument to commemorate the arrival of King George V in 1911.

This 26m-high stone structure, called the Gateway of India, ultimately proved a threshold of both access and egress, transforming from a gesture of welcome to a symbol of freedom. In 1947, as India gained its independence, the last British troops withdrew through its central arch. This moment of historic transition has been given fresh significance since the near-collapse of Western capitalism.

The balance of power has irrevocably shifted; Britain and India’s relative financial prospects now face in opposite directions, with the more mature economy stagnating and the developing one - currently the 11th largest in the world - growing rapidly. Britain’s recent rhetoric reveals the extent of this reversal. While the Queen’s speech in May spoke of ‘an enhanced partnership with India’, her government has gone much further.

Where it once boasted of its ‘special relationship’ with America, the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition now talks of a ‘new special relationship’ with India. The differences between the visits of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, to the US and India in July underline the comparative importance of these two relationships.

While Cameron led a dozen-strong entourage for both, he was the single important figure on the Washington excursion. But for the Indian trip, the delegation included the chancellor, the foreign secretary, the business secretary and the chief executives of more than 50 of the nation’s largest companies.

Today, Britain’s missions to India are for heads of government and commerce - not state. What little ceremony remains merely lubricates the transactions and negotiations of trade and politics. But if Britain is only just starting to reappraise its ancient association with India (long overdue, many would argue), India is much further ahead in defining its feelings about Britain.

Simply looking at a modern map shows how strongly the country has asserted its own identity since becoming autonomous. Numerous cities have successfully shed their imposed names and regained their original ones. Bombay became Mumbai in 1996, and Madras is now Chennai. However, more recent attempts by politicians to rebrand Bangalore as Bengalooru highlight uncertainties in both countries.

In the West, corporate slang has inelegantly constructed the verb ‘bangalored’ to refer to jobs lost to India’s most successful IT hub through ‘outsourcing’. Ironically, the renaming of Bangalore in 2006 reflects the insecurity caused by the emergence of India’s home-grown middle class. By 2015, over 200 million people are expected to belong to this group of English-speaking, affluent, educated people, who are eroding traditional values.

That the rebranding of Bangalore didn’t gain the same momentum as that of Mumbai or Chennai suggests that the Indian middle classes have a more globalised outlook. As proof, the AR is delighted that India is the third biggest user (after the UK and US) of the new website www.architectural-review.com.

And yet with British exports to India not even amounting to one per cent, the British government must be hoping that this demographic will be as receptive to buying its products and services as its industries will be keen to sell them. If Britain is to reduce its reliance on trade with the disastrously indebted economies of Europe, it must expand into this and other developing markets.

UK media commentators have been busy trying to guess which out of Britain and India will be the ultimate economic winner and loser, but this is an oversimplification. The Telegraph, for example, fretted that British-owned JCB, in order to profit from India’s planned £960 billion budget for infrastructure over the next decade, has located its factories, and thus its jobs, over there rather than at home.

In fact, the relationship is much more reciprocal. India provides billions of pounds of inward investment to the UK; greater indeed than the financial flow in the opposite direction. The £4.6 billion takeover of Anglo-Dutch Corus by India’s Tata Steel is but a single potent example of this trend. Yet even this reduces the exchange to a matter of numbers, whereas the relative positioning of the two nations is complicated, nuanced and ever-evolving.

If dominance can still be gauged in architectural expressions, then India is set to complete its ascension over its previous colonial master in two years’ time. The 2012 Olympic Games in London will unveil a beacon of its superiority with the 120m-high red-steel viewing tower (AR May 2010) - but it is designed by Anglo-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and funded by the London-based Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Europe.

Perhaps even more tellingly, the Queen has declined to attend the Commonwealth Games in Delhi this October. But if, at this highest level, the former imperial power appears to be conceding its decline, Cameron’s visit leaves a more hopeful impression: that two countries which have shared a troublesome history can mutually flourish in a collaborative and enterprising 21st-century partnership.

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