Britannia, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


British Prime Minister Theresa May was in India in November to strengthen the British economy, months after the Brexit referendum voted for leaving the EU. She was seeking the support of Britain’s erstwhile “Jewel in the Crown” to bolster trade in the era of emerging India and the not so-great Britain.

In today’s world, one sure way to court India is to court Indians living among you. So, May hosted a Deepavali function at 10 Downing Street, days before her official visit to India. She lit a traditional lamp and said, “The festival played an important part in our national life. When we analyze the true meaning of Diwali, its relevance extends beyond India, beyond the Indian diaspora and even beyond the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists who, in different ways, mark the festival. Its messages apply to every single one of us – whatever our background, whatever our faith.”

She continued, “I haven’t read all 24,000 verses in the epic about Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya. But I do know the story of his homecoming from the many Diwali celebrations I have attended in my own constituency over the years. The values he [Rama] embodied are values which we can all heed. Values of charity, sacrifice and responsibility; to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi: losing ourselves in the service of others.”

may-in-the-shiva-templeShe surprised everyone again during her visit to India in November when she visited a Shiva Temple in Bengaluru, dignifiedly wrapped in a traditional silk sari (see the picture), even partaking in the arati at the temple.

Quite a transformation for a British prime minister, one of whose predecessors, Winston Churchill, in 1931, before he became the prime minister, refused to meet with Gandhi who was in London, referring to Gandhi  as “half-naked” and a “seditious fakir”!

For many Indians, this transformation is bittersweet. After all, the British came to India as traders. Taking advantage of the weak and fragmented polity, the traders ended up ruling over the entire subcontinent for over 150 years. Finally, even after winning World War II in 1944, the empire collapsed, The British hurriedly left India in 1947, leaving the Indian subcontinent in a mess, the effects of which are seen even today.

All through the British occupation, even though individual British archeologists, historians and linguists took interest in India, the English Establishment — British bureaucrats, army officers and even lowly clerks — with their stiff upper lips, barely tolerated the “native” Indians. The desi Brown sahebs took their cue from their Goras, becoming even more insufferable in dealing with the “natives.”

But years later, beginning in the1960s, Indian engineers, scientists and doctors migrated to the US and Canada and made their imprints in universities, theresaw-may-in-a-fashinable-saricorporate R&Ds, hospitals, and as entrepreneurs. This greatly enhanced India’s image globally. In the UK itself, Indians account for over 20% of the doctors in its healthcare system. The large number of Gujaratis from Africa who landed in the UK as refugees became entrepreneurs running successful businesses.

Ater India liberated itself again in the 1980s  from the clutches of the Nehruvian socialist ideology, India’s innate entrepreneurial instincts resurged. Today, with much of the industrialized economies of the world (North America, Western Europe, and Japan) dormant, and China slowing down, India has an impressive 7% growth rate. With Britain caught in its own vice in the Brexit referendum and the threat of its weakening links in the EU, it is looking for new business opportunities in India, but this time, probably on India’s terms. No wonder Britain comes calling once again, this time doing it with charm, in contrast to Colonial days’ disdain, condescension and guns! India is pragmatic. With its mercantile instincts, India is ready to work with its past ruler, but on its own terms.

And Theresa May made every right gesture to appeal to Indians. She looks trendy and fashionable in the contemporary sari, and carried herself with great élan and dignity in a traditional silk sari in Shiva temple in Bengaluru.

So, without appearing to be offensive to Prime Minister May, I am gleeful to declare, “Britannia, You’ve come a long way, baby!”    ♣

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