WINDS OF CHANGE… The new look at India

Tue10Jan12

The obvious contrast is with England. Over 30 years ago, at roughly this time of year, I came to London to go to school here. At that time, almost every reference to India was negative. The Emergency was treated as proof of the fragility of Indian democracy. We were dismissed as a nation of lazy, quarrelsome people who had no money and lurched from famine to drought.

It did not help that earlier in that decade, Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, had thrown Asians out of his country forcing many of them to seek refuge in Britain. Though the Ugandan Asians were highly qualified and hardworking, their detractors used them to prop up the caricature of Indians as a burden on the societies of the West.

In that era, people were still astonished that Indians could speak English well. At school, I was forever being complimented on the quality of my writing and debating skills. But beneath the compliments lay a tone of amazement: How come you Johnn ies learn to speak our language so well?

Then, there was the Hindu-Muslim question. Many people said to me, in all seriousness, that Hindus and Muslims were always ready to tear each others throats out and were entirely incapable of living in peace. Some went so far as to suggest that it was only the stabilising influence of the British Raj that had kept us from massacring each other.

I thought back to those days a couple of weeks ago when David Cameron arrived in India with a delegation of businessmen all eager to sell us their wares. Cameron said all the right things he even painted Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism and flattered India so much that it was hard not to like him. But beneath the bonhomie lay a hard, commercial reality: Britain needs India.

Talking to people in London, I am constantly astonished by how completely the perception of India has changed from the negative image that held sway during my school days.* In that era, if you mentioned India, people thought of hunger and famine. Now, they talk about a high rate of growth, a booming economy and the software industry. Such great British icons of my school days as British Steel and British Leyland are now owned by Indians. Nobody regards this as at all odd or noteworthy. Nor does anybody find it strange that Britains richest man is an Indian, L.N. Mittal, raised in Calcutta and still the proud owner of an Indian passport. It is almost as though the Indian ascendency has been a fait accompli.

When I was in school and university, London was in thrall to the Arabs, who were flinging their oil money around. You hardly ever saw Indians in smart restaurants or in the top shops. At such department stores as Selfridges, an Indian walking the floor was likely to be stopped by other shoppers who thought he was a sales assistant. Even in the 1980s, when West End shops hired Indian salespeople, they were gently encouraging if such salespeople dyed their hair brown and spoke in Arab accents.

Now, Indians are Londons biggest spenders. Such expensive restaurants as Hakkasan, Nobu and Kai would probably have to shut down if they lost their Indian customers. At the Armani shop on New Bond Street, they brag about the rich Indians who go there. And at nearly every expensive shop in London, salespeople will serve Indians first because they believe we may spend more money than the Brits. (To be fair, the Russians still have the edge over Indians but the Brits hardly get a look in.)

“We never thought that Indians would make such global fortunes that the wealth of Britain would pale in comparison to their assets.” Whats made the difference?

I think two separate developments have taken place. The first does not really concern us but is worth noting. The East African Asians who were the subject of so much scorn in the 1970s have now established themselves as equal partners in British society. Brits have realised that these were highly intelligent and well-qualified people who had suffered a temporary setback only because of the racism and xenophobia of African politicians. The period of adversity made them work even harder and their rise through the ranks of British society and the meritocracy has been so swift as to be almost unprecedented.

The second development is the rise of India since the 1990s. It is significant that the richest Indians in Britain (the Mittals, the Hindujas, Naresh Goyal, etc.) are not British Asians. They are not people who have made their money in England and many of them (with the possible exception of the Hindujas) have no interest in becoming British citizens.

Their success has turned the conventional wisdom on its head. In the old days, the Brits accepted that there would be some Indians immigrants who would make money in England and rise to the top of the social structure. In fact, that has not really happened. Most British Asian milliona ires are strictly second-division. The real money has been made by Indian citizens who have used their business acumen to build up international empires and use London as no more than a professional base. Someone like Sunil Mittal is far richer than any British Asian millionaire and runs a global empire. When he spends time in London (he has a flat here), he does it because he likes the city not because he has any desire to make money out of England.

The other negative perceptions have been tempered by experience. Nobody lectures us on Hindu-Muslim relations any longer given that the UK faces so much difficulty in integrating young Muslims who have been born and brought up in the UK (the tube bombers, for example). Nor is our ability to speak English the subject of much wonder. In fact, it is the cause of considerable annoyance as British jobs get exported to Indian call centres.

When I was at school, we could never have imagined that such a day would come to p ass. We never thought that Indians would make such global fortunes that the wealth of Britain would pale in comparison to their assets. Nor did we think it possible that the Made in India label which was regarded with so much derision in those days would become a mark of quality in such areas as computer software. In retrospect, the most amazing thing is how quickly it has all happened. Most changes that are as fundamental as this one take a generation or more. But the effortless rise of India has taken less than two decades.

So, as we take stock of what we have achieved in the decades since Independence, lets recognise that India is still a country with many problems. But lets also acknowledge that what we have achieved is just short of miraculous. We have gone from being a country the West wrote off to becoming the country they all want to suck up to.

– Vir Sanghvi, Express News Service

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