If Facebook had been around in the 1950s, the relationship status for the UK and India would have been “it’s complicated”. Seventy years on, looking back over my own time in India as I prepare to leave, I’m struck by how much has changed.
When I first visited in 1992, India had just embarked on a major programme of economic liberalisation. The generation for whom a major reference point — for good or ill — was the UK, was giving way to a cohort consuming American TV and shaped by the wave of IT emigration to California. Vasant Kunj was just emerging and Gurgaon was still a Bollywood dream. New flyovers appeared on a monthly basis, and my ability to negotiate routes with Punjabi taxi drivers, before the days of Google Maps, Uber and Ola, was eroding fast.
When I returned in 2005, Sir Michael Arthur was British High Commissioner — symbolically, the first in his position to be born after 1947. India was experiencing greater consumerism, development, and international policy debate. A tiny number of foreign-funded think tankers were giving way to a Made in India policy community. Everybody wanted in on the India story: one of growth, opportunity and cultural confidence. The UK was a strong (and the first P5) backer of India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2002.
Arriving again in 2015, this time as deputy high commissioner, the relationship had moved a huge distance from its complicated past. Bilateral trade was growing year on year (now over £18bn in goods and services). Our defence and security relationship deepened; Hawk trainer jets became the mainstay of Indian Air Force training, and a commitment to Make in India underpinned industrial co-operation. A growing number of joint research programmes connected top Indian and British scientists, supporting a shared research ecosystem that flourishes to this day. Meanwhile the City of London became an anchor for raising capital to invest in India — with masala (rupee denominated) bonds just the latest example.
As our diplomatic presence grew (we now have around 950 staff), so did our network. We opened deputy high commissions in Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad and upgraded our representation in Bangalore. Diplomatic appointments demonstrated the success of Indian-origin Britons, with desi deputy high commissioners variously heading our offices in Kolkata, Mumbai, and now Chennai.
Today, the scale of exchange between the two countries is astounding: over 1.2 million journeys last year. The latest figures show a 35% increase in visitors from India to the UK. More than half a million British visas were issued last year, and more Tier 2 work visas granted to Indian nationals than the rest of the world combined. Growing numbers of Indian students are studying in the UK once more, a 30% increase since last year. Misleading gupshup about visas conceals the reality — nine out of 10 UK visas get issued.
The India I prepare to leave is an India transformed. It is self-confident and full of remarkable, ambitious and engaged young people. India’s democracy shines in a world where democratic values are increasingly questioned, and its leadership on climate change sets a global example. India is truly forward facing. Digital India, in particular, is profoundly impressive (my daughter’s birth certificate took only 10 minutes to issue). The new tech partnership announced by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Theresa May in April will ensure our best minds come together to unlock potential and deliver economic growth in both countries. This is a great example of the new UK-India partnership: two of the world’s leaders, with world-class skills, coming together to jointly maximise the benefits that technology can bring.
Diplomats are paid to be gushing about the relationships they work on, no doubt, but the change in the UK-India relationship since the 1990s cannot be underestimated. Until 1947, the UK occupied India. The human and economic legacy of those years cannot be overlooked. We can (and should) talk about it honestly. But we cannot change what has happened. What we can change is more significant. As equal partners, we can collaborate as a force for good in the world. So I say phir milenge for now, in full confidence that the UK-India partnership is truly ready for the future.
Alexander Evans is the outgoing British Deputy High Commissioner to India
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Aug 01, 2018 11:08 IST
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