Growing up in India in the 1960s, I knew that America gave us wheat, and Britain gave us literature. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of watching Geoffrey Kendall’s Shakespearana troupe performing in my home town of Dehradun. Visiting my uncle in New Delhi, I saw a stack of elegant hardcovers on a table in his study, borrowed from the library of the British Council. Later, as a student at Delhi University, my own education in literature and history was largely shaped by the books from the same library. My uncle read V.S. Pritchett and A.J.P. Taylor. I preferred Anthony Powell and E.P. Thompson.
Those memories came back when, now temporarily living in London, I read the commentary in the British press about whether the UK should stop giving aid to India. Over the years, while the British Council libraries were allowed to run to seed, the Department for International Development supported rural health and education schemes. Several years ago, when Indian billionaires started buying British companies, calls were first heard for the dismantling of Dfid’s operations in India. Earlier this month when, despite continued aid activity, the Indian government said it might buy French warplanes rather than British ones, these calls were renewed.
The first contention, that its provision entails an exchange of favours, is incorrect: sovereign nations cannot easily be bribed into professions of loyalty to richer or more powerful countries. Lyndon Johnson expected that food aid would stop the Indians complaining about the carpet bombing of North Vietnam – it did not. The Bush administration poured money into Pakistan hoping it would co-operate fully in the war against al-Qaeda – the Pakistanis went along when it suited their interests, but acted otherwise when it did not. Barack Obama now thinks that threats to cut off aid will compel the new Egyptian regime to follow America’s policy on Israel – he, too, is likely to be disappointed.
The other argument is that India is now a rich country, and the Indians ungrateful (the foreign minister’s remark that British aid was “peanuts” provoked much outrage). This too is not entirely accurate. While the Indian economy grows at between 7 and 9 per cent per year, and there is a rising number of billionaires, several hundred million Indians are still desperately poor. And inequalities are growing.
Yet the primary responsibility for providing the poor with a social safety net and equality of opportunity must lie with the Indian state. It should improve its schools and hospitals, and provide safe housing for the large number of citizens without it. It should better use technology to remove leakages in the provision of targeted subsidies for the poor. And it should certainly be more energetic in taxing the super-rich.
There may still be a place for aid, but not, I believe, from any foreign government. The Indian elite, which likes to spend its spare cash on luxury mansions and private aircraft, must be shamed into doing more for their less advantaged compatriots. The example of the software entrepreneurs of Bangalore, who have generously supported initiatives in education and the environment, must be more widely emulated. Western charities and multilateral organisations must also continue their good work. India is now largely polio-free, thanks to a well-run government programme funded and monitored by the World Health Organisation and the Gates Foundation.
It is true that Britain and India have a somewhat special connection. No other relationship between a former imperial power and a former colony is so suffused with affection and so free of animosity. To maintain this spirit, the British would do well to focus on culture rather than economics or military hardware. Close down Dfid’s operations in India. Do not sulk when Indian entrepreneurs buy your companies or the Indian government buys guns or rockets from elsewhere. But, please, do restore and enhance the collections of the British Council libraries, and do send your best writers and (especially) actors on tours to India.
The writer is Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics. His books include ‘Makers of Modern India’