Margaret Thatcher was tougher and more imperialistic than Britain's present Prime Minister David Cameron can ever be. Back in the 1980s the Iron Lady tried to make some easy money by raising the tuition fees of foreign students in England. Most countries took it lying down. But Malaysia was not amused.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed was a medical doctor and a soft-spoken genteel personality to boot. But he had more iron in him than the reputed Lady of London. He was appalled by Thatcher's unilateral move to squeeze money out of foreign students. Thousands of young Malaysians were studying in England and most of them were on government scholarship. So Malaysia's stakes were high in the tuition fee fracas.
Mahathir hit back. And he hit where it hurt. The first move was to announce a "Buy British Last" policy. The ease with which British goods found their way to the former colony suddenly vanished. Twirling the knife inside the wound, Mahathir followed up with a "Look East" policy. Japan suddenly became the supplier and model of the rapidly growing Malaysian economy. A shaken Margaret Thatcher climbed down and flew all the way to Kuala Lumpur to make up with the Malaysian leader.
Mahathir played graceful host, but used every means to drive home the point that his country was not to be taken for granted. The same year Thatcher went to Kuala Lumpur, 1985, Mahathir went to London and addressed the Confederation of British Industry. With understatements and innuendos the British would have secretly admired, he told them:
"We regret very much that the advantageous position that you had when we gained independence was not exploited by you. But partly this was our fault. We Malaysians looked up to you so much that you must have felt taller than you really were. It took the shock of dealing with a reputedly abrasive personality to correct an outdated patron-client relations..... Malaysia is of course not in the same league as Britain, but young nations tend to take equality seriously".
India is a young nation, too. Unlike Malaysia, it is in the same league as Britain if Indian investments in that country is any indication. But India has a leadership that does not take equality seriously. It merely wanted clarifications from British authorities when they announced that visa applicants would have to pay a cash bond of Rs 2.75 lakhs (£ 3000). Clarifications came -- that it is a pilot programme, that it is only aimed at high-risk applicants, etc. The fact is that India is branded as a high-risk country to be watched and regulated by Britain.
In fact India is high-spending country. Bonafide Indian tourists spend £ 793 per person in England (when an American tourist spends £ 710). There has been a three-fold increase in the number of Indian visitors to Britain in the last decade. That translates to the kind of big money a nation of shopkeepers will appreciate. Add to it the millions Bollywood's film makers spend on location shooting. The reverse economics of the cash bond idea is going to bleed Britain.
But it is the insult implied in the policy that India should take note of. High-spending Indian middle-class, capital-investing Indian businessmen, and Indian actors and authors who help keep Britain still somewhat Great have been equated, clarifications notwithstanding, with infiltrators of the kind every country has. India as a whole has been equated with countries known for their malfunctioning systems and consequent eagerness among some of their citizens to abuse the systems of other countries.
The malfunctioning countries are helpless. India is not. Tourists and students will punish London by simply going elsewhere. Already Indian student flow to Britain is down by 25 percent. It is the Government that can deal the coup de grace. All it has to do is to impose an equivalent cash bond on Britons seeking Indian visas. Or simply announce a "Buy British Last" policy. To do that, however, we need a leadership with backbone. Maybe Britain knows that Delhi currently is a boneless wonder.