PRime Minister Narendra Modi has excelled himself by getting the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as the chief guest for Republic Day. There is some bit of uncertainty over his visit owing to the pandemic-induced restrictions in place in the United Kingdom, but it is a good occasion to reflect on India-UK ties, especially since 1947.
For a start, Johnson has a close family connection with India. His second wife, Marina Wheeler, is half-Indian. In fact, Marina’s mother, Dip Kaur, was a Sikh. She was married to my father Khushwant Singh’s youngest brother, Daljit. They divorced and Dip then married Sir Charles Wheeler, the BBC correspondent in New Delhi. They had two daughters, Marina and Shirin. Marina met Boris when she was studying at The European School in Brussels. After his brief first marriage was annulled, he married Marina. The marriage lasted 25 years, and they had four children. The couple was formally divorced just over a year ago, and Boris married Carrie Symonds, with whom he had been having an extra-marital affair. The rather colourful — and much-publicised — personal life of the British Prime Minister does not seem to have been detrimental to his political career. He was a hugely successful Mayor of London, and led his Conservative Party to a massive victory in the last election. The victory reaffirmed that most Britons wanted to leave the European Union. Brexit could be India’s gain.
Actually, Marina’s connect with India goes deeper. Her mother’s elder sister married my father’s eldest brother, Bhagwant (there is also a third sister whose family lives in Mumbai). Hence, Marina has several Indian cousins based in Delhi and Mumbai. She and Boris would stay with them on their frequent personal trips. Half-jokingly, he used to refer to himself as “a son-in-law of India”! Marina, a barrister, who also holds the high-level designation of Queen’s Counsel, has just published a book on her maternal family. They originally came from Sargodha, now in Pakistan. Research on that book took her to India and Pakistan. Clearly, the British PM, through his over two decades of married life to Marina, knows India well. I met him, Marina and three of their children in Delhi in 2018 at a family dinner. They were on their way to Ranthambore, to see tigers at the sanctuary. In my interaction with him, it was evident that he was quite knowledgeable about India.
He must also have got wind of the infamous ordinance recently passed by the UP government against inter-faith marriages. With Marina being at least half-Sikh, one wonders if the subject will come up in his discussions with the Indian PM, even in playful banter.
At a more serious level, India and the UK have much in common, thereby providing a solid foundation that the two countries can build on. In a letter to the Indian diaspora, Johnson put it well: “We share so many values, the rule of law, democracy, a dynamic entrepreneurial spirit, and I believe that is why India should be one of our most important partners on the global stage.” He went on to promise that he would deliver “a truly special UK-India relationship”. Those are the very sentiments that the British PM is bound to stress in his talks with Modi. Johnson will surely be mindful of the fact that Indians in the UK have traditionally favoured the Opposition Labour Party. That is mainly because the Labour was more sympathetic to India’s Independence movement, whereas Winston Churchill, the Conservative British PM during World War II (and, incidentally, one of Johnson’s great heroes), was an arch imperialist, strongly opposed to independence for India. He dismissed Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi as “men of straw”, who would not be able to effectively govern an Independent India. Significantly, India got its Independence sooner rather than later, largely on account of Churchill being surprisingly defeated soon after the end of WWII, and being replaced by Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party.
Be that as it may, the Indian diaspora in the UK has undergone a massive change. Initially, it consisted mainly of workers who had migrated to earn a better livelihood. Indians doing menial jobs, such as sweeping and cleaning toilets at London’s Heathrow airport, used to be a common sight. No longer. More of them are now seen as officials stamping passports or manning the Customs. The descendants of the former workers have become middle class and professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. Some have become successful entrepreneurs. Quite a few have gone into public life. In fact, Johnson’s Cabinet has three well-known ministers who are of Indian origin: Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma. Sunak, a Punjabi, married to Akshata, the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana and Sudha Murthy, is Chancellor of the Exchequer, in effect the number two. Many think he could one day succeed Johnson, and become the first Indian-origin leader of the UK. With Kamala Harris, whose mother was Tamilian, the Vice President-elect of USA and being talked about as a future President, what a great and proud day it would be for India to have them leading the US and the UK!
— The writer is a veteran journalist