From takeaways to takeovers.jpg

From takeaways to takeovers


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Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

DEPENDING ON one’s age, the average Englishman’s view of India is either that of a trading nation, mainly supplying most of our tea, or of a country from which a large portion of its population emigrated to Britain to set up curry houses.

That, of course, is a simplistic view, which fails to take into account the turbulent history of a proud nation over a period of some 300 years.

Britain’s involvement in India started with the East India Company, a chartered company of London merchants which gradually transformed trading privileges in Asia into a territorial empire centred on India. By 1700, it had secured the important trading ports of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, which became the capital of British India. In 1757, Robert Clive secured Bengal for the Company after the Battle of Plessey.

Then, exactly 100 years later, came the Indian Mutiny, when Sepoy workers with the East India Company refused to handle new cartridges, apparently greased with pig and cow fat, which they regarded as an insult to both the Hindu and Muslim religions. This bloody mutiny lasted for a year and, in 1858, the British government took control of the Company. In 1877, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India and British rule continued until Independence in 1947.

Following partition of India and Pakistan at that time, together with the resulting poverty, many Indians emigrated to Britain to seek a more prosperous way of life. Initially, some found work as bus conductors and waiters, whilst others started small businesses such as the famous ‘corner shops’. Now, however, as a third generation has emerged, Indians are found as leading doctors, lawyers, accountants and successful businessmen.


Some aspects of Indian culture have been absorbed, with films such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Bend It Like Beckham becoming box office hits. Indian food has also been integrated into British culture, with curry houses in every high street. In one recent survey, it was found that Chicken Tikka Masala had replaced fish and chips as Britain’s favourite dish.

Meanwhile, back home, things were changing. A new Indian Raj had emerged, with groups of powerful men buying up chunks of the homeland of their old imperial masters. There were the Hinduja brothers, Lakshmi Mittal and others, who were now major players in the world markets. They were joined by a Mumbai-based conglomerate, Tata, who have now bought the prestigious British motor companies of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.

Admittedly, this 1.15 billion pound takeover transferred Jaguar from American ownership, but shock waves have resounded throughout the British financial world.

Since it entered the UK market in 2000, Tata now has control of Tetley, the importers of Indian tea to Britain since 1856 and, more significantly, last year, took over Corus, the British steel giant. This, at 6.2 billion pounds, was the biggest foreign acquisition by an Indian company.

Another jewel in the UK crown, the Scottish distillers Whyte & Mackay, makers of the famous Dalmore and Isle of Jura malt whiskies, was bought by Vijay Mallya, the Indian airline and brewery magnates.

India is even threatening England’s traditional home of cricket. A new Indian Premier League is offering record fees to the world’s best cricketers to take part in its competition this summer. English players, keen to take advantage of such generous remuneration, have been pressurised by authorities at home, with a mixture of ‘sticks and carrots’, to resist temptation and honour their domestic contracts.

For many Indians, all this is seen as the re-establishment of a natural order. The country’s new-found wealth and influence bringing power over its old colonial masters. As Pavan Varma, a former Indian diplomat, put it, “Indians take pride that the relationship is now one of equality, that India is an emerging power and Britain is a former power.” The Sunday Times put it more succinctly. “Britain is beginning to look like a significant outpost in a new Indian empire.”

WHILE BRITAIN shivered during some of the worst March weather on record, a state visit by a French president and his wife brought a welcome warm glow. France and England have not always been ‘best friends’, but when President Sarkozy and his new glamorous wife, Carla Bruni, came to stay with Queen Elizabeth, it was a show worthy of an entire edition of Hello magazine.

The media dubbed the Italian-born Mme Sarkozy – a former model and singer – as the new Queen of Hearts, and they were not wrong. On the morning of her arrival, The Sun newspaper had, unchivalrously, published nude pictures of her, taken during her modelling days, but this did not seem to deter her.  She charmed the Duke of Edinburgh, prime minister Gordon Brown, the public and the press.

The euphoria seemed to have carried over into the more formal discussions between the president and the prime minister – or Nicolas and Gordon, as they referred to each other at press conferences.  Addressing the joint Houses of Parliament, Nicolas praised Britain, not just for its role in two world wars, but as a ‘role model’ to other nations. Gordon smiled constantly.

There were, of course, hints

‘The media dubbed the Italian-born Mme Sarkozy as the new Queen of Hearts’.
‘The media dubbed the Italian-born Mme Sarkozy as the new Queen of Hearts’.

of differences in policy – agriculture, the EU budget and NATO – and even on whether or not to boycott the Olympic games ceremony in Beijing in protest at China’s crackdown in Tibet. However, there were also signs that the two men got on well together on a personal level – influenced, no doubt, by the charm of the delightful Carla.

There are whispers that she has plans to ‘re-define’ President Sarkozy. He is regarded as a bit of a philistine as far as the arts are concerned, whereas his wife is educated, speaks three languages fluently and has recorded an album of poems, which she has set to music. She is reported to have arranged a series of intimate dinner parties for him, with friends from the arts world. I somehow think he will enjoy the conversion process.