Should we care about the British royals’ visit to India?

The visit by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla has been largely ignored by the Indian media

Cordelia Jenkins
Updated11 Nov 2013, 10:42 PM IST
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla stand in front of the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi on 8 November. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP<br />
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla stand in front of the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi on 8 November. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP

New Delhi: In 1905, when the future George V was still the Prince of Wales, he arrived in India with his wife as part of an official tour of the British Empire (he’d come back as king six years later—the only Emperor of India to attend his own Delhi Durbar). Silent video footage of the arrival shows the couple in royal procession through the streets of Mumbai, lined with onlookers and a military parade.

Last week, another Prince of Wales arrived in Delhi to a less impressive fanfare. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have visited school projects, seen temples, sat through an aarti ceremony at Rishikesh and a charity dinner thrown by Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai, but the heir to the British throne and his mehbooba (as he introduced her at the Mumbai dinner) have been largely ignored by the Indian media.

The lacklustre coverage of the tour, due to end on Thursday, when the royal couple head to Sri Lanka to represent Queen Elizabeth II at the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, could be due to a number of factors.

Dilip Cherian, co-founder of image management agency Perfect Relations, suggests the lack of any unifying theme to the visit, India’s preoccupation with business and visas over symbolic heads of state, and the absence of a glamour angle as reasons for the indifference.

“There will be grave disappointment within the royal PR machine (over this visit),” Cherian said. “It’s a relatively tepid show. Also, over the years, the British government has upped its visibility here so, in a sense, it’s a reflection of that success. Delhi does not quite notice them.”

Grandeur vs glamour

At home at least, the British royal family has been enjoying a record high of popular enthusiasm. In a Guardian-ICM survey last year of 1,002 people, 69% said Britain would be worse off without the monarchy, and only 22% said the country would be better off. The birth of Prince George in July became a major media event, as did the royal wedding between Charles’s son William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine Middleton in 2011, and Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee anniversary in 2012.

The UK press has been following the visit closely, with The Daily Mail providing particularly minute updates of the tour. The Prince of Wales’s appearance at the Commonwealth meeting has been interpreted as an indication that Queen Elizabeth II is ready to start handing over royal duties to her son and the visit also coincides with Charles’s 65th birthday, his entry into pensioner-dom and renewed speculation about whether or not he will ever ascend the throne. Whether this interest extends to the royal family’s erstwhile colonies, however, is a subject for more debate.

The Indian media’s indifference may be a reflection on these two ambassadors in particular rather than the family as a whole. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, better known as “Wills and Kate”, have gained international celebrity status due to their relative youth and glamour. The young royals are objects of influence and Kate’s fashion sway extends to an Indian audience, says Priyanka Khanna senior fashion features editor at Vogue India. “Kate Middleton is making royalty relevant for a whole new generation. Both in India and internationally, she’s an exceptionally great ambassador for British (fashion) talent,” she adds.

“With so many websites shipping to India, and young Indian women travelling such a great deal, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are shopping at Topshop, Zara, LK Bennett or Reiss after seeing her in these labels,” Khanna says.

By contrast, the Prince of Wales’s generation seems to have been left behind in the glamour stakes. Cherian contrasted this visit with the one made by Charles and his first wife Diana in 1992, when the much-reproduced photograph of the former Princess of Wales sitting on a bench alone in front of the Taj Mahal came to encapsulate the breakdown of the royal marriage.

Royals abroad

Historically, British royals visiting India haven’t made the most positive first impressions. According to author and journalist Sam Miller, whose book on foreigners’ impressions of India is due to be published by Penguin India in February 2014, India’s first British royal visitor was George Fitz-Clarence in 1818. The illegitimate son of King William IV made a few cultural faux pas when he arrived at the Ellora caves near Aurangabad.

“He repeatedly described the caves as ‘stupendous’, compared its architecture to that of ancient Greece, and sat down to eat ‘a few slices of a round of beef’ inside the main shrine,” writes Miller. “The taste, he explained with an unmistakable sneer, ‘suffered nothing from the idea of feasting on the flesh of the most sacred and venerated animal of the Hindus, in their most singular temple’.”

FitzClarence was the oldest son of William IV and the great-great-great-great-great grandfather of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has made multiple India visits to encourage business relations, bringing the UK’s largest ever trade delegation to India earlier this year.

Other visiting nobles were more enlightened than FitzClarence. Miller’s book includes the example of the future Edward VII, another Prince of Wales who visited India in 1875–76. Edward, Miller notes, “objected to the ‘rude and rough manners’ of many of the British that he encountered,” and was appalled that some of them referred to Indians using a racial epithet.

When Edward visited the Taj Mahal, Miller writes, “he pointed out, rather wisely, I think, that it was commonplace for every writer ‘to set out with the admission that (the Taj Mahal) is indescribable, and then proceed to give some idea of it”.

The Prince of Wales’s last visit to India was to open the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a choice that was panned by some Indian commentators, who felt that the honour ought to have gone to then President of India Pratibha Patil. On his 1980 tour of India, a young and single Prince Charles got in trouble when budding Bollywood star Padmini Kolhapure kissed him during a visit to a film shoot—the rather chaste peck on the cheek is still included in Internet lists of the “most controversial kisses of all time”.

Brand Britannia

This time around, though, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess are encouraging business and philanthropic links between the UK and India, and visiting conservation projects, according to the press release issued by the British high commission. However, they may not be obvious ambassadors for business relations, says Mark Runacres, founder of the British Business Group and former UK deputy high commissioner to India. “In this country where people understand what royalty is, the idea that royals act as trade ambassadors doesn’t really work. It also paralyses the government machinery somewhat,” Runacres says.

Business relations between the two countries have been on an uneasy footing as a result of the ongoing $20 billion (around 1.3 trillion today) tax dispute involving Vodafone Group Plc, in which the UK company has threatened to take the Indian government to international arbitration.

In another moment of tension, earlier this year, the UK government proposed a deeply unpopular £3,000 (around 3 lakh today) security bond to be paid by all Indian visa seekers in surety of their intention not to outstay their visas. The proposal has since been scrapped —an embarrassing U-turn for the UK government that has placated India somewhat.

Runacres, who was in India during royal visits from the 1980s to the early 2000s, disagrees that the British royals fail to draw the attention that they did in former years.

“British VIPs have always come here in large numbers, but, absent a scandal, the media doesn’t have a story they can tell about Prince Charles,” he says.

“This trip is not a publicity stunt, he is not here to make headlines, he just loves coming here,” says Runacres. “If and when William and Kate come, that will be enormous, people will be desperate to see Kate in particular.”

In an interview with IBNLive, the British high commissioner to India, James Bevan, also claims there was continued interest from India in the affairs of the British royal family. “Indians understand royalty,” he says. “You have your own traditional royal families, many of them... I think every Indian understands the importance of family. And at heart and at bottom the British royal family is a family.”

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First Published:11 Nov 2013, 10:42 PM IST
HomeindustryShould we care about the British royals&#8217; visit to India?

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