India’s growing economic clout high on Brown’s agenda

By Prasun Sonwalkar


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London : Who exactly is Gordon Brown? Until January this year, except for a few, not many in India may have heard of him, for the simple reason that he had never visited the country as Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, a key post he held for a record time.

Brown was confirmed Thursday as the next Labour leader who will take over from Tony Blair as the next prime minister of Britain.

Yet, do a search on his pre-budget and other speeches in recent years and one of his most oft-mentioned words is 'India'. Brown has been among the first British politicians to recognize the opportunities and challenges presented by India to Britain's economy.

India figured prominently in his interaction with the press Thursday when nominations for the Labour leadership contest closed and it became clear that he was the only candidate in the fray. He repeatedly referred to India and its growing role in global issues such as climate change.

As Brown begins his passage to 10 Downing Street, India and Britain appear set for a new phase in their relationship in which economy, trade and business will become the predominant buzzwords.

A political heavyweight in the Labour party, Brown, 56, will not really have to exert much to deal with Indian leaders, in particular, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He developed a rapport with Manmohan Singh during the January visit that was, in some ways, overshadowed by the Shilpa Shetty-Big Brother brouhaha.

Brown and Manmohan Singh share a strong academic background in economics: both have doctorates in the subject, Brown from the Edinburgh University and Manmohan Singh from Oxford. Manmohan Singh served as India's finance minister before becoming the prime minister, while Brown has trodden the same path.

Brown's Ph.D thesis was titled 'Labour's struggle to establish itself as the alternative to the Conservatives (in the early part of the 20th century)'. For a while, he lectured at the Edinburgh and Caledonian universities, and also had a brief stint as a journalist at Scottish TV in the early 1980s.

Brown, a Scot, was elected to parliament as a Labour MP for Dunfermline East in 1983, and became the opposition spokesman on Trade and Industry in 1985. He was the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1987 to 1989 and then Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, before becoming Shadow Chancellor in 1992.

After the sudden death of Labour leader John Smith in May 1994, Brown was one of those tipped as a potential party leader. It has long been rumoured that a deal was struck between Blair and Brown at the Granita restaurant in Islington, in which Blair promised to give Brown control of economic policy in return for Brown not standing against him in the leadership election.

Brown has headed the Treasury since 1997, and in June 2004, he became Britains longest continuously serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since the 1820s, overtaking David Lloyd George who served for seven years and 43 days between 1908 and 1915.

With a professional façade as a workaholic, serious and sombre politician, Brown's record in office has been hailed across party lines. Called the 'Iron Chancellor', Brown has won widespread praise for having secured Britain's economic stability.

His critics within the Labour party such as former minister Frank Field allege that he can be a "control freak", that he is "psychologically flawed" that he will be a "f-ing disaster as prime minister", that he is "dark, broodish, clannish and difficult to deal with".

However, in recent days and months, Brown has exerted to burnish his public image. People close to him say that gone are the days of Brown the bachelor, seemingly addicted to work, totally dedicated to his career and obsessed with keeping government spending under control.

Brown married Sarah Macaulay in 2000, grieved at the death of their daughter Jennifer in 2002, and later beamed across the front pages and television screens when his two sons, John (2003) and James Fraser (2006) were born.

During a frank and witty interaction at the left-wing think-tank Fabian Society recently, he invoked John F. Kennedy's idealism, and recounted a Mark Twain story while answering a question on whether he recognized that his personality was a problem.

Brown began by jokingly promising a new "fitness video", and moved on to relate the story of Mark Twain's arrival in a frontier town in America where he was shocked to find drinking, gambling and prostitution. "I soon realised this is no place for a puritan," Twain wrote. "And I did not long remain one."

Brown has been a regular in meetings of the Labour Friends of India, a lobby within the Labour party comprising MPs, ministers and party leaders. At a recent meeting of the group, he said: "I value my contacts with India and want to convey my thanks to Labour Friends of India for the constructive and positive role it plays in parliament."

Before visiting India in January, he said: "I am looking forward to visiting India with a view of understanding how our two countries can work even more closely than they already are. Our connections with India as a party go back many years and our relations are deep and so profound."