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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 18:54 GMT
Sea change in UK-India relations
Gordon Brown, who is widely expected to be the next UK prime minister, begins his first trip to India on Wednesday. The BBC's India correspondent, Sanjoy Majumder, reflects on the changing times between London and Delhi.

Gordon Brown. File photo
The visit will be the first Gordon Brown has made to India
"While we hold on to India, we are a first-rate power. If we lose India, we will decline to a third-rate power. This is the value of India."

The words of Lord Curzon at the turn of the 20th Century may well find a strange echo in the 21st Century and as India enters its 60th year of independence.

India continues to captivate Britain, especially in the popular imagination.

So, Shilpa Shetty makes more news on Big Brother than she does in her own film industry, Bangladeshi-owned Indian restaurants have elbowed fish and chips shops off the high street, and hopes of an Ashes revival were pinned on a turbaned Sikh.

But the relations between India and Britain are grounded in a reality that goes beyond culture, curry and cricket.

'Brand Brown'

India is now the third largest investor in the UK, with more than 500 Indian companies opening offices there.

More importantly, nearly 1.5 million people of Indian origin live in Britain and that more than anything else is fuelling the relationship.

The British Asian community is steadily rising in prominence and is easily the most influential among the minority groups in the UK

Now, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who is widely expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister later this year, is arriving in India.

Amazingly, it is his first official visit to the country - a fact not unnoticed back home with many political opponents suggesting that he had missed the boat.

For Mr Brown it is an important visit, a chance to build brand Brown and demonstrate that he possesses the qualities of an international statesman.

But for India, it is Mr Brown's record as chancellor that can provide Delhi a glimpse of his approach and an outline of his vision for the future of the relationship.

For the past two years, Mr Brown has publicly warned about the growing economic clout of India and China, in particular the more than four million skilled graduates that both countries produce each year.


These are the people who are quietly making up the numbers in the UK workforce and, increasingly, calling the shots.

Curry is one of the biggest Asian success stories of all in the UK

Britain faces tough choices in the era of globalisation, particularly because of low-cost production centres in India and China.

One solution, and one that is endorsed by the prime minister-in-waiting, is - if you cannot beat them, join them.

So nearly four centuries after an intrepid naval commander arrived in Surat to seek permission to trade with India, the saga continues. Except that the world of Captain William Hawkins is vastly different from that of today.

Perhaps the best illustration of the sea-change in trade relations is in the battle over India's mobile phone industry.

'Hardnosed reality'

UK telecom giant Vodafone is rolling up its sleeves in what promises to be a bruising takeover bid for Hutchinson Essar valued at nearly $20bn (10bn).

Man using mobile phone by poster showing Hindu god with modern technology equipment
India's mobile market is growing fast as consumer spending rises

Among its international rivals over the bid are the controversial UK-based billionaire Hinduja brothers. And pitching up for Vodafone is its Indian-born CEO, Arun Sarin.

So, a British company is competing with another British company for an Indian telecom firm - or, to put it another way, several Indians are slugging it out in the middle. So what if they have different coloured passports.

Perhaps it is a hardnosed reality or a maturity brought about by aged ties.

But the frosty sensitivity of the past, when a comment by Robin Cook on Kashmir raised hackles in India or a perceived slight to Queen Elizabeth II drew sharp comments from the British media, is clearly history.

Instead, it is the Clinton-campaign slogan of 1992 that appears to hold pride of place - it's the economy stupid. And the future of Britain is even more closely tied up with its former colony.

British Asians

But there is also politics.

The British Asian community is steadily rising in prominence and is easily the most influential among the minority groups in the UK.

And it is not just their votes that count.

Steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal has pledged 2m ($4m) to the cash-strapped Labour party, almost certainly bailing it out of financial crisis. The party's deficit last-year amounted to nearly 27m ($53m).

This is perhaps the one major element in the Indo-Britain equation that India has perhaps underplayed, the British-Asian community and the value they bring to the relationship.

In a Britain that is embracing multiculturalism, the Asians appear to have pride of place.

If the first wave of Asians helped revive the retail shops on Britain's high streets, their children are now making their mark on the financial and business world.

British Asian influence has now crept into the arts, culture and music.

The sounds of the Asian Underground is more than a record label - it is a new genre of music.

And sporting icons Amir Khan and Monty Panesar may just mean that the next generation of Asians may well pass the Tebbit test - coined infamously in 1990 by the Conservative MP Norman Tebbit who suggested that people from ethnic minorities should not be considered truly British until they supported the England cricket team.

Politically influential and economically powerful, the British Asian community is a significant factor that will govern Indo-British relations and shape them in the decades to come.

Final twist

There is a delicious irony in this.

British colonialist Thomas Macaulay once famously aspired to create in India "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste".

In modern, multicultural Britain, that has been turned on its head.

And there is a final twist in the tale.

The impact of British colonialism was felt most in India's cities - in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

But the Asians of Britain today are largely drawn from small town Asia - from Surat and Navsari, Jalandhar and Ludhiana, Mirpur and Sylhet.

This is the constituency that will in many ways define British policy towards India.

Call it the revenge of the proletariat.

Brown seeks globalisation success
28 Nov 06 |  Business
Indian industrial output rebounds
12 Jan 07 |  Business
Brown outlines vision for Britain
13 Jan 07 |  UK Politics
Vodafone in India telecoms battle
28 Dec 06 |  Business
It's Hinglish, innit?
08 Nov 06 |  Magazine
Country profile: United Kingdom
14 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: India
09 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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