Watching William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sail down the lawn at the British high commissioner-designate’s residence on Monday evening brought back memories of Queen Elizabeth's visit to India in 1997, when IK Gujral was prime minister – and he had been infamously quoted as saying on the eve of that visit that "Britain was a third-rate power."
A refugee from Pakistan, Gujral had, of course, risen to the top political job because he was the agreed number two candidate of the Third Front -- all the warring, non-Congress and non-BJP parties hadn’t been able to agree on anyone else, especially after Jyoti Basu was ruled out by his own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Of course, Gujral was trying to put out that he, son of the soil in republican India, was equal to any royalty, both home-grown and "angrezi," notwithstanding the fact that for more than half his life (Gujral was born in 1919) the British royals had been his ruler.
Gujral’s quote was never fully denied by the government. As for the visiting British royal press, it seemed undecided about whether this was an insult to their Queen? Or, whether in the wake of Diana’s untimely, recent death and the numerous accounts of her unhappiness with her in-laws, perhaps Elizabeth deserved the criticism?
The Indian media, on the other hand, certainly seemed to enjoy the British discomfiture. I remember how David Gore-Booth, the serving high commissioner to India at the time, had remarkably undiplomatically rubbed in India’s place in British consciousness by stating that when the Queen visited Amritsar, she would not apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
Gore-Booth’s remarks had, of course, been followed by a minor furore. How dare the British treat with deliberate contempt a massacre – a turning point in India’s freedom struggle -- they had perpetrated in the first place? I also remember how all those invited to meet the Queen one afternoon were told to either bow (by men) or curtsey (by women), with many of us exercising the third option of simply saying "Namaste." (In the end, she was wearing gloves, so her fear of us, the natives, touching her was unfounded.)
So what is it that has made India so much more mature these intervening years, allowing it to treat Britain’s newest royals with both aplomb and equanimity? Remember that in 1991, India had to mortgage 100 tonnes of gold to the Bank of England, a modern-day equivalent of selling yourself again to the East India Company, causing a huge dent in its self-confidence levels…
So what was it that changed ?
The single most important answer to that question is the reform of the economy in 1991 and the consequent transformation of the three per cent Hindu rate of growth to the double digit figures of the tiger economies of China and South-East Asia, unleashing several waves of national self-confidence. And then when India went nuclear in 1998, signaling that it was equal to all those seated on the global high table, but would not necessarily crash the party, it gave fair warning that it could not be ignored for much longer.
A quick look at trade & investment figures are revealing : The UK is today the third largest investor in India, after Mauritius and Singapore (with Mauritius renowned for its round-tripping), but 16th biggest trading partner, far below China, US, UAE, Saudi Arabia and even Switzerland.
In 1992, India imported Rs 872 million worth of goods from the UK. By 2013, this had shot up to Rs 224,991 million.
Clearly, India had been taking a leaf out of the Chinese strategy, of tying in foreign investment at home and ramping up trade so that its fruits could improve the economy at home.
India’s biggest advantage over China, of course, is its ability to speak English, even if it is in several Indian accents. Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union last July, delivered in the Queen’s own impeccable version of the language (it was viewed three million times), on why Britain owed India reparations was so widely and popularly received because it articulated -- "with respect" as Tharoor put it -- India’s angst at being given serious short shrift by an unworthy Empire and its legatees.
Meanwhile, global power equations shifted visibly away from the UK, across the Atlantic to the US and more recently back to Asia. Certainly, Britain – and the rest of the Permanent Five in the UN Security Council – are keenly aware that if the Security Council were to be revamped as a reflection of today’s power structures, Britain would be the first country to be dropped.
The gin cocktails at the High Commissioner-designate’s reception for WillKat were pretty average and the rest of the short eats were par for the course. It was fun, though, to watch the royal twosome walk down the lawns, chatting with the gathered Indians. Former BJP member of parliament NK Singh, who stood right in front of the rope that divided royalty from plebeian, would not be denied and said "Hello and welcome to India!", while Divya Chauhan of the Amity Group informed Kate about their common interest in education.
|Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton with Narendra Modi. (PIB)|
And then there were these four white skinned and blond-haired women who Kate resolutely passed over as she shook hands with one lot of Indians and then another, who later told me that it was "quite clear that the British royals had been advised to spend time with Indians Only! "
That’s what the evening was about: Britain good-naturedly acknowledging that India was more than equal to her former master and sending two good-looking, fashion-conscious people to deliver the message.
As for India, there have been enough well-dressed, good-looking people playing host over the last few days, beginning with minister of state for Information & broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore whose penchant for the tightly-fitted "bandhgala" over his flat stomach has hardly escaped notice. And then there was Bollywood, India’s truly egalitarian royals, perfectly air-kissing the future monarch and his wife.
It’s too cruel to break the mood, of course, but I suspect that what IK Gujral prophesied in 1997 has been true for some time: Britain is, really, a third-rate power, even if its newest royals are sweet and seemingly uncomplicated and admittedly, good-looking.
What more could one ask of a lovely, balmy pre-Baisakhi evening in Delhi ?