India Riding in London Taxis
The first three taxis I took in London this week were driven by South Asians — and they each provided an interesting sense of how India is perceived by its own diaspora and those of neighbouring states.
My first charioteer was a Gujarati Khoja who hailed from Kenya. “I don’t have much to do with India,” he admitted. Unlike the Indian community in Uganda which was expelled decades ago and then returned there carefully armed with PIO cards in case their was a repeat performance, Kenyan Indians have led a largely peaceful existence.
But India hovered somewhere in the backdrop of his mind, even though he admitted he’d never visited it in his life.
He said how, as a driver, he often found himself waiting in Heathrow Airport for a customer. “In the past, it was people like me picking up Europeans and Brits,” he said. “Now, in the past 10 years, you see more white drivers waiting around to pick up Asians, especially Indians. What a difference, to see something like that.”
Narendra Modi, for him, was interesting largely because the English media had spent so much time debating him.
India’s homegrown strength, he believed, was its pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. “All the family members I know who’ve gone back have gone back to use the hospitals,” he said. “Very good and not too expensive.”
My second driver was a Sikh who originally hailed from Chandigarh.
He remained close to India, including monitoring the elections.
He liked Modi, he told me, “because he’s a strong man and you need people like that to get things down in India.” He didn’t believe the new government would be any less corrupt than its predecessor, but he’d heard things actually got done in Gujarat.
Reluctant to disparage his compatriot Manmohan Singh, he merely said, “He was too old. He should have stepped down earlier. “
But he also liked Modi because he hoped it would mark the final chapter of the Gandhi-Nehru family, refracting his community’s antipathy to the first dynasty through the elections.
“Can they ever come back?” he asked rhetorically.
The third cabman was from Bangladesh and a more excited proponent of India one would struggle to find.
“India is a powerful country, almost a superpower,” he told me. I demurred, but he persisted. “I see Indians in London all the time. How wealthy they are.”
He was a fervent Khaleda Zia supporter and unhappy that India had supported Sheikh Hasina’s decision to not let a caretaker government hold power — and triggering an election boycott by Khaleda’s Bangladesh National Party. “She could only have done it wi Indian support. New Delhi made even the Americans support that position.” Khaleda would have won hands down if the elections had been fair he insisted.
Despite this, he didn’t hold much grudge against India.
A Muslim from Sylhet, near the Assamese border, he asked why Modi had called for all Bangladeshis to be sent home. “Just politics right?” he said. “But how can the ruler of a superpower say such things.”
However, he was even more impressed with China. He described going to Tunisia and seeing huge highways running across the country — all built by China. “All over Africa, you see them,” he said. He noted that even the Americans were now too scared of China to do anything with them.
He confided that China was Khaleda Zia’s big friend and that when she came to power their would be largescale Chinese investment.
I outlined what I saw as Modi’s plans for integrating physically the economies of Bangladesh, the Northeast and Myanmar. “This would be very good for everyone,” the Bangladeshi said.
But maybe India and China should build it together, he speculated. I said if he had ever been to India and seen its infrastructure. “No, he said, “I have had a chance to see India. I especially want to see Calcutta.”
I told assured him India was still a long way from being a great power. After all, Bangladesh had done a better job in social indices than India like education.
We passed a building with a Tata sign near Mayfair. “Look at Tata. They have bought everything so things must be doing well in India.”