India and Britain's complex and nuanced relationship

Britain must adapt its relationship with its former colony in order to make it a fruitful one.

India Finance Minister Sri Pranab Kumar Mukherjee 390 (photo credit: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)
India Finance Minister Sri Pranab Kumar Mukherjee 390
(photo credit: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)
In one of those anomalies that says more about the past than the present or the future, Britain currently provides over $2 billion in foreign aid to its former colony, India.
Given the countries' relative places in the global economic pecking order, as well as their significantly different growth rates, it is hard to justify such a large transfer of funds, at least in the direction they are currently flowing.
British officials made clear this week these are the final days of its Indian aid program.  The British government has promised to maintain the program until 2015, but appears reluctant to commit to anything more.  Clearly, such a significant financial commitment cannot be maintained indefinitely.  Recent surveys indicate that approximately 70 percent of Britons favor stopping aid to India.
Of course, poverty remains a persistent problem in India.  However, there is mounting evidence that India’s own domestic anti-poverty programs, which involve over $100 billion, are effective at addressing these issues.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition now in power in Britain have promised to spend 0.7 percent of the country’s national income on international aid.  This is a significant amount considering the austerity that dominates the rest of government spending.  However, such generosity has not been without limits.  Soon after taking power in 2010, the coalition quickly terminated the aid program to China.
India’s standing in the world is significantly higher than it was in the decades immediately following independence.  India is now a nuclear power, actively engaged in space exploration and conducting a very real “space race” with rival China.  There are currently 57 billionaires in India.  Hotel groups are investing $20 billion in India to provide for the over 1 million business travelers that come to India each year.
It is hard to ignore the economic boom in India, which is growing at over 6 percent annually, even if large segments of the Indian population have not yet enjoyed the benefits.
Accordingly, British Prime Minister David Cameron has publicly pledged to strengthen economic ties between his country and booming India, since Britain currently ranks only as India’s 16th biggest trading partners.
One potential hurdle is the increasing immigration difficulties that prevent many Indians from studying and working in Britain.  The US is significantly more successful in the battle to attract the brightest young minds to study at their universities.   Harvard and Stanford are rapidly replacing Oxford and Cambridge as the destination of choice for many Indian students.
In addition, all eyes will focus on London this summer as the Olympic Games draw athletes and spectators from around the world.  However, India is reportedly planning a partial boycott of the opening and closing ceremonies as a result of their ongoing protest over Dow Chemical’s role as an Olympic sponsor.  Dow now owns Union Carbide, the company that was responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster.  Four thousand people died from that catastrophic methyl isocyanate gas leak, in what remains the world’s worse industrial accident.
Even a symbolic walk-out of the Indian delegation, which did not otherwise disrupt participation in the sporting events, would be a significant embarrassment to Britain, which has invested so much time and money in ensuring that these Olympics present their country in the best possible light.
Regardless of these disputes and disagreements, history still binds Britain and India together, in spite of their tremendous differences in size, climate and traditions.
The colonization of India leaves a complex cultural legacy in both countries.  Chicken tikka masala routinely ranks as Britons favorite take-away meal, while the quintessentially English sport of cricket is played and followed with a devout passion in India that far outstrips what the game receives in its ancestral home.
It is therefore quite fitting that an Indian cricketer set a record this month that will most likely stand for many years to come.  Sachin Tendulkar became the first batsman ever to score a “century of centuries” in international cricket.  By chalking up his hundredth 100 run performance, Tendulkar has given the millions of Indian cricket fanatics something to be uniquely proud about.
It will take many years for the best placed English batsman to come close to meeting or surpassing that record.
As India has matured in recent years into a more confident and assertive country, and Mumbai has staked its claim to being an economic powerhouse of global importance, Britain has had to adapt its approach and relationship with its former colony.  Britons have much to gain from continued Indian success, and those elements of shared culture and history that link the two can be the foundation for future benefits and mutual advantage.
Importantly, India also represents a model for economic development that contrasts markedly with the approach taken by China and other East Asian countries, where democracy and personal liberty are sacrificed in favor of simple economic growth.
The shortcomings of India are many, including bad roads, high illiteracy and poor sanitation that can literally trap poor Indians into a life of want and suffering.  However, India also possess a well-developed legal system, a free press, a vibrant democratic tradition and a command of the English language that they owe to Britain.
These British legacies will position India well to confront their biggest challenges in the years to come.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.