In March 1931, Winston Churchill decried that exiting India would be “a hideous act of self-mutilation, astounding to every nation in the world”. Nearly a century later, that statement rings truer for Brexit, than the empire’s exit from its colony.

Seven years and five prime ministers later, the UK feels unsettled, friendless and desperate, amid declining prosperity. It would be hard not to. An elaborate coronation for King Charles has done little to reinvigorate the country. Instead, even former colonies have turned dour and rightly demanded an apology and the goods taken from them by the empire. But the mood in India is decidedly worse; it’s not just the past that hangs like a shroud.

Resilience and grit, once the hallmarks of the British, are now displayed by its former subjects

Under Prime Minister Modi, India is in its most muscular incarnation since independence. That’s bad news for a UK that is hoping to court India, with policies that show a certain nonchalance. A recent attack by pro-Khalistan supporters on the Indian High Commission in London – and the UK Government’s initial tepid response – annoyed the Indians. India reacted by reducing security around the British High Commission in New Delhi and the ambassador’s residence.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s previous gripes about Indian visa-holders overstaying, drew a strong response. For India, the ties with the UK are that of its diaspora. It hardly sees Westminster as the power it once was. It needn’t. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, ahead of the UK, and on track to take the number-three position in just a few years. Its democratic credentials make it a hard-to-ignore destination for business. As the second-largest investor here, it lags behind only the US.

Every summer, scores of wealthy Indians flock to London, shop in Selfridges, catch tennis at Wimbledon and scour the country’s top universities on behalf of their children. But, more importantly, Indian companies do a lot of business with the UK. They have rescued several iconic British brands including Jaguar Land Rover, Hamleys, Tetley and Norton. They have turned around companies. Resilience and grit, once the hallmarks of the British, are now displayed by its former subjects.

Indians, who speak the common language they were forced to learn over a century ago, would want a more welcoming UK. However, the trouble with the UK – and it is a genuine one – is that it is without a plan for itself, and for those it is looking to court. Most Britons are struggling with high inflation. Public services are teetering from underfunding. Individual liberties are being stymied by anti-protest laws. The deep suspicion of foreigners that triggered Brexit has left the UK underserved in every possible way.

It is difficult to fathom what story the UK can actually tell India. The values it stood for seem to have been systematically eroded. The UK’s rescue, if it can at all be engineered, has to come from its educational institutions and their output. For centuries it has been a country that allowed curiosity, discovery and learning to thrive. The halls of Oxford and labs of Cambridge have given the world much. The worldwide web transformed how we communicate. It was in the UK where the secrets of DNA were unveiled, and it helped the world see differently with radar.
As the UK fumbles, it has the opportunity to steady itself on the next generation of technology in AI, which will radically transform the world. London has shown it can nurture tech talent. The sheer power of machine-learning was demonstrated by DeepMind led by Londoner Demis Hassabis, while Stephen Hawking warned the world about the power of AI and its threat, well before others appropriated the idea.

The UK can make this narrative its calling card and seek collaborations with the countries who want to ride this wave. Its universities must act as breeding grounds for the brightest minds from these countries and make the UK a welcome destination for entrepreneurs, learners and AI explorers. It must reposition itself as a place of academic, creative and intellectual excellence, and embrace and incentivise foreign talent. Prosperity will follow.

Look west. The UK’s political overlord, America, is a superpower built by immigrants. Setting immigration strictures to assuage the intolerant citizen is a story with a dull ending. To befriend India, the UK should take a kinder view of the scores of migrants, students and professionals who come here. The UK must make intellectual-capacity-building its top export and find ways to help India capitalise on its youth bulge and the vast human capital that will need to be skilled and trained to use these technologies of the future. The UK needs more skilled people, and India can support that.

While India has scaled very fast on technology-driven payments platforms and interfaces, the UK can push AI-driven advanced solutions that may help tackle some of India’s last-mile bottlenecks in the delivery of goods and services to its underserved.
Unless the UK can offer something that India needs, it may find itself chasing India’s tail.

Anjana Menon is the co-author of “What’s Your Story?” and author of “Onam In A Nightie: Stories From A Kerala Quarantine”. She runs a content strategy consultancy and is a former international business journalist and editor. She can be found at @menonanj

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