Even if he had come and left the day after arrival, symbolism of the potential for an enhanced relationship between London and Delhi would have been immense.
This is not 1921 but 2021, and the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of India has evolved since that time in a manner not foreseen by those holding power in that country a century ago. Those were days when the sun never set on the Empire, and nor would the calendar run out (or so was the received wisdom). The refusal of the British establishment to grant India the same freedoms as were enjoyed by Australia and Canada gave fuel to anti-British sentiment and finally to the Quit India resolution of the Congress Party in 1942. This was a time when it was not certain that the Allies would prevail over the Axis, or that Japan could be prevented from repeating in India the victories secured by Tokyo over European colonies in Southeast Asia. Whether because of conviction or calculation, M.A. Jinnah offered the complete support of the Muslim League to the British war effort at a time when the attitude of several Congress leaders was ambiguous when not hostile to the Allied cause. Much of the responsibility for this needs to be placed at the door of the then occupant of 10 Downing Street. Churchill was voluble both privately and publicly that only European countries would gain the rights offered in the Atlantic Charter, and not any of the colonies (as distinct from Dominions). During the 1939-45 war and afterwards, Churchill made a typist in his office conduct a correspondence with Jinnah. The purpose was to guide the latter in what needed to be done to help persuade Whitehall to accept Jinnah’s call for partition. Given the impact that this exchange of information and perspectives had on the future of India, it is a surprise that more historians have not examined this particular correspondence. By the close of 1943, opinion in groups connected with matters of UK defence got solidified that the Congress Party would never be a reliable partner. Only a new and separate country that included territory abutting the USSR, China Afghanistan and Central Asia would, if that country were ruled by the Muslim League. Partition became seen as a security imperative for the UK, a fantasy kept alive after 1947 by Pakistan joining both CENTO and SEATO, while at the same time privately assuring the leaders of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China that the only country that Pakistan would go to war against was India. This must have been known to London and Washington, but they seethed are the foreign policy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who abandoned the KMT almost as soon as Mao Zedong established the rule of the Chinese Communist Party over China. The KMT and its leader Chiang Kai-shek had consistently given its backing to the freedom movement in India (to anger from Churchill). This support took place during a period when Joseph Stalin sided with Churchill rather than with the Mahatma where India was concerned, and Mao Zedong was transparent in his contempt for the Congress leadership.This did not stop Nehru from shunning Chiang and being the biggest international backer of the PRC during the 1950s The British judged themselves to be acting in their own best interests when they divided India, causing wounds that still fester. Mao acted in what he understood to be the interests of the PRC when he occupied Tibet, thereby making his country India’s most consequential neighbour. Nehru ignored the security implications of the occupation of PoK by Pakistan and that of Tibet by the PRC. Or in his refusal to accept the offer by the King of Nepal to make that country a part of India. The isolation of India within the non-aligned community during the 1962 conflict with the PRC highlighted the lack of substance behind the policy. “Mera Bharat Mahan” is an attractive catchphrase, but it can be brought to life only by appropriate action. In 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee rejected the request by President George W. Bush that a division of soldiers be sent to the Kurdish zone in Iraq. That was, and remains, among the most peaceful parts of the country, but the excuse of the risk of casualties was used to reject a request favoured by L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh. Sometimes adopting what seems the least risky strategy may be less beneficial to the national interest than going ahead with a bolder course of action. When Boris Johnson took over as the Prime Minister of Britain, it was assumed that he was in the mould of Winston Churchill or at the least Margaret Thatcher, but he seems to be following in the footsteps of Ted Heath. Being the Guest of Honour at the Republic Day parade would have brought the chance for a reset between UK-India relations. Both are part of the 21st century Anglosphere, a construct whose reach and advantages have never been taken advantage of by successive governments in India. Even if he had come and left the day after arrival, the symbolism of the potential for an enhanced relationship between London and Delhi would have been immense. Why the physical presence of Boris Johnson in the UK is needed to battle a pandemic that has devastated several of the peers and possible competitors of the PRC is unclear in a world of seamless and reasonably secure communications. Presumably his spin doctors briefed him that his absence in a faraway land would annoy voters. What seems to be bothering the British people is, instead, a lack of courage and resolve in taking decisions. Boris Johnson seems to be making decisions based on the most recent private polls he reads about public attitudes, and this narrow focus on politics of the day rather than statecraft anchored by a clear strategy was not expected by those who believe in the brilliant essayist turned politician.
The cancellation by Boris Johnson of his visit to India and the boost for India-UK relations attached to his being present at the ceremonial of the Republic Day parade has by his backtracking dissolved into a footnote in public discourse in India. As has the image of Britain itself. Such are the consequences of the UK Prime Minister’s vacillation and obsessive focus on the politics of the day rather than the needs of the age.