How India 'Colonized' Britain

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty

A replica of The Taj Mahal floats past Parliament on the River Thames in London headed to the India Now Festival celebrating Indian art, film, theatre, music, fashion and food.

In the six decades since Britain ended its rule in India, the two countries have had their share of spats. Indian resentment over past wrongs pushed the sub-continental giant to distance itself from its colonial master and forge a role as a "non-aligned" leader during the Cold War. For years, England-India cricket matches were charged with an extra element of rivalry as the Indian team tried to outdo their erstwhile colonial masters. A little over a decade ago an Indian Prime Minister called the U.K. a "third-rate" country after a perceived slight on an anniversary, and Prince Philip caused a furor during a Royal visit to the site of the massacre at Amritsar when he suggested that a memorial plaque "exaggerated" the number of people killed there by British troops. Still, while such contretemps may make headlines, they also distract from the love affair between Britain and India that endures to this day.

It's an affair born of shared history: Tea, for example, that most English of drinks, was first cultivated in India by British growers, who quickly undercut their Chinese competitors on price. Like cricket (which the English introduced to India) and polo (though its origins are Persian, the modern game began in northeast India and was later encoded and spread by the British), drinking tea is a joyous ritual that binds Delhi and Doncaster. (Polo is a rich man's sport, of course, but class and caste have long mattered in both countries.)

Then there is language. English may be Britain's greatest gift to India (which, today, is home to the world's largest English-speaking population), but Hindi has spiced the language with a masala of words long-since codified in its dictionaries: chit, guru, jungle, pajamas, pundit, sentry, shampoo, and thug, to name just a few. Indian cuisine long ago surpassed fish-and-chips as Britain's most popular restaurant food. Or, at least, "Anglo-Indian" — England's most popular "Indian" dish, chicken tikka masala, is actually a British invention, since exported to the land that inspired it. Indian property and hotel developers borrow the lexicon of their English counterparts, using terms such as park, mews or estate in the names of new upscale complexes. A hint of Britain sells, it seems.

Little wonder then, that when Tata Motors, one of India's biggest car companies, agreed to buy prestige British brands Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford three weeks ago, there were cheers in both India and Britain. Indian newspapers reveled in the fact that a company from the former empire had brought two icons of the British automotive industry, while Jaguar execs privately told at least one industry insider that they preferred Tata over rival bids from private equity firms because Tata understands the heritage of Jag and the motoring culture that produced it. "Buying this kind of thing builds a kind of permanent bridge between us," says Lt. Gen. M.R. Kochhar, president of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, a repository of colonial-era rules and British class-system etiquette in the heart of the Indian capital. "Both of us love the products, or at least the history of the products."

But these are business decisions rather than gestures of colonial nostalgia. Tata bought Jaguar not because it is British, but because it thinks it can make the company work where Ford failed. Indeed, Tata might turn out to be more hard-nosed (and lucky) than Ford. For too long, Jag's American owners relied on the company's heritage to sell more cars, releasing model after model largely based on the classic Jaguar look that dates back to 1968. Though Ford never broke out separate results for Jaguar and Land Rover, analysts believe the former lost at least $10 billion over the past decade or so (Land Rover has been in good health the past few years and made an estimated $1 billion in 2007). Tata is buying Jaguar just as the company has finally broken its repetitive mold and released a car that is truly new and modern looking. Some analysts say Tata's timing is perfect, and that if it manages the British manufacturer well, it could prove to be very profitable.

That doesn't mean, however, that the shared passions and pastimes, drinks and diversions of Britain and India are irrelevant. Far from it. Indian companies have been on a buying spree over the past few years, snapping up companies across the globe. Some of the biggest and most high-profile have involved British firms (Tata Motors' parent company, alone, has bought tea makers Tetley and steel giant Corus) and that's likely to continue, not only because Britain is a vibrant, open economy but because the shared history does count for something. "More than 200 years we were together," says Kochhar. "And any people who speak the same language have an understanding. Irrespective of the kind of things that happened in our past we owe a lot to Britain. And now that it's our turn in the sun of course we look at British things in a desirable way." It's not that being British or Indian will guarantee close relations, good ties. But it helps when you begin to talk if you both know what's pukka.