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India doesn’t have an institutionalised social calendar for the months between October and March when the weather in much of the country is at its most agreeable. However, if such a calendar ever came into being, it is almost certain that the Queen’s visit would feature on top, far above the President of India’s “at home” on January 26. Needless to add, for Indians who are not inhibited by political correctness, there is only one Queen – The Queen.
When the Queen comes visiting this week, it will be more than 50 years since her father ceased being the King Emperor of India. In these hurried times, half a century would have been an inordinately long time. Yet, as The Sunday Telegraph (London) reported approvingly last month, the British High Commission in Islamabad has been inundated with calls from Pakistani “ladies who lunch” inquiring about possible invitations to the Royal reception. It is, of course, possible to argue that it’s different in Pakistan. Thanks to the nationality laws there, a sizeable section of the Pakistani elite has dual nationality. It’s winters in Lahore or Karachi and convivial summers in Kensington and St John’s Wood. By comparison, Indian nationhood is far more settled.
Or is it? There is something quite inexplicable about India’s relationship with Britain. There is, at one level, a distinct sneer among officials each time the United Kingdom is mentioned. If the post-1968 generation in Britain suffers from a sense of imperial guilt, India’s post-Independence generation is overwhelmed by a rush of post-imperial recrimination. It is as if the battles of yesteryear are being passionately relived. The reactions to the Labour Party’s silly move to placate its vote banks in Bradford and Birmingham are the latest example. As is the conventional wisdom that the Commonwealth is a meaningless talking shop.
At the same time, however, the bonds between India and Britain have never been closer. It is not merely that more British brands are available in Mumbai and Delhi than at any point since the introduction of protectionism in the late ’50s. It is simply that the gateway to India’s gaze westwards is London. Why does Oxford Street in the summer resemble an extension of Cuffe Parade and Friends Colony? Why does a Test match involving India at Lord’s attract exceptional interest? Why does India’s elite have a decisive foothold in the social circuit of London? It is not because the glitterati necessarily wants the return of the Raj. It is not even that there are no other places to go to – New York holds out a greater appeal for the 20-somethings. The point is just that Britain reeks of familiarity. It is the only place outside the subcontinent Indians are naturally at ease in, an ease that probably emanated from playing Monopoly as children.
That is why the royal visit is something a little different from the state visit of the president of Belarus. We are not really discussing trade and commerce or Kashmir and disarmament, although these may figure on the agenda of New Labour’s New Britain. When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh come calling this week, it will be a social occasion and a time for strengthening the bonds between two cultures that have benefited from each other in more ways than we care to acknowledge. She may no longer be our Queen, but there are few Indians who can truthfully say that she is not The Queen. This is not revisionism. It is a truth that dare not speak its name.
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