Today it is exactly 200 years since Napoleon was narrowly defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by the combined armies of the British and the Prussians.

The narrowness of that defeat (until as late as 7.15 pm that evening, Napoleon was congratulating his generals on their victory) has made many writers ask one of the most fascinating “What ifs” of all time:

What if Napoleon had indeed won at Waterloo? How would that have affected the course of world history?
And, more intriguingly, how would it have affected the course of Indian history?

First, a flashback

Within a brief, dramatic 15 years, the French leader Napoleon had, through brilliant generalship, made himself the Master of Europe. But by the time he turned 40, a new, more mature Napoleon had begun to emerge. Age was mellowing his early aggression and, more importantly, he was beginning to understand that his people were now tired of the long years of waging war.

So this was a Napoleon who was now turning his formidable intellect – and energy – to matters of peace.

He had, in fact, already introduced a barrage of legal and administrative reforms in France; his streamlined Code Napoleon introduced the radical concept of civic equality; he had set up a Central Bank to manage the country’s monetary affairs; he had restored religious peace after decades of strife; he had created a system of elite educational institutions; he was now dreaming of designing a magnificent new Paris.

The results of these (and other) visionary measures are, remarkably, still evident, not only in France, but across the European Union.

European Union, 1815-style

Thus the Napoleon who won the Battle of Waterloo would have arguably been more of a statesman than a general.

It has been suggested that this new Napoleon would have created a unified Europe that would, in his own words, have “a European law code, a European high court, a single currency, the same laws… I must make all the peoples of Europe a single people”.

In other words, he had envisioned one vast European superstate – uncannily similar to today’s European Union – stretching from Lisbon to St Petersburg (and including much of Germany: a significant fact, as we shall soon see).

But while all this would be happening in Europe, in Britain – which had had a bitter historic rivalry with France, and with Napoleon personally – a defeat at Waterloo would have been a national disaster.

It is probable that Britain would, as a result, slide into decades of turmoil, with mass starvation, riots, and ultimately, a full-blown people’s uprising (which, one historical writer imaginatively suggests, might have been led by no other than the revolutionary poet, Lord Byron).

So what happens to India?

With Britain in decline, and a French-dominated Europe in ascendance, the obvious question is: what would happen to India, the Jewel in the Crown?

Napoleon had long understood that Britain’s geopolitical power was heavily dependent on India, and its wealth. And he had therefore been campaigning to dislodge the British in India ever since the time he came to power.

At first, this effort took the form of alliances with Tipu Sultan and the Marathas (whose armies, by the way, were largely led by French generals). But, ultimately, the time came when Napoleon decided he needed to step up the effort by personally leading a military campaign to India: he believed he would need to land 12,000 crack French troops in the country to drive out the British.

It was, of course, an endeavour of mind-boggling dimensions, but Napoleon – typical of his towering vision – was inspired by the campaign of his idol, Alexander the Great, two thousand years earlier.

The long march to India

Understanding that the British were invincible as a naval power, Napoleon knew he’d need to avoid the obvious sea route to India, and instead launch a daunting overland campaign, as Alexander had done. This campaign would take him through Egypt and the Middle East and – including its various military and diplomatic phases – it would last nearly ten years, before Napoleon set it aside.

The campaign began with an invasion of Egypt, as a first staging post across the Mediterranean. And from there it proceeded to Syria, where Napoleon was halted – temporarily, he believed – by the Ottomans and their British allies. He then tactically withdrew, switched gears, and entered into a treaty with Persia, offering them military assistance against their common enemy, the Russians. By 1809, however, the European situation had changed, so Napoleon shifted his attention back to the north.

But the British colony in India was too big a prize for him to forget about; sooner or later, when the time was right, he would surely come back to it.

A French map of 18th century India

A French Raj?

Now, in the new post-Waterloo world of 1815 where a unified, French-dominated Europe was the pre-eminent global power, and where Britain – along with its once vaunted navy – was in decline, it was only a matter of time before Britain began to lose its colonies, one by one.

And since India was the most prized of them all, it is likely that France would step in to it – as it had indeed been seeking to since the 1700s, before being thwarted by Robert Clive at Plassey.

So how would a French Raj have differed from a British Raj?

That, of course, is the subject for a PhD thesis, but there were at least three fundamental differences in the colonial styles of the two powers: First, the British tended to exclude the local peoples, while the French readily co-opted them – as long as they adopted the French language and French culture.

Second, the British believed in governing locally and set up a sophisticated local administrative infrastructure (a valuable asset that independent India ultimately inherited), while the French had a more centralised system, overseen from Paris, with colonies being considered, more or less, as “overseas departments”.

Third, the British considered decolonisation as the end of its relationship with the colonies, while the French treated it as merely a redefining of the relationship, and worked hard at continuing its ties – economic, political, security, as well as cultural.

But there is another, even more important, difference we must look at: a Europe that had been unified by Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo would have thereby averted the rise of a belligerent Germany. It would have thus been spared the two consequent – and hugely debilitating – World Wars of 1914 and 1939.

As a result, Europe would have been robust enough to hold on to its overseas colonies for a much longer period of time. Which probably means that instead of gaining independence in 1947, India would have had to wait till at least the mid-1970s, when – who knows? – a French-speaking Indira Gandhi might have become its first President.

Parlez vous Hindi?

A few other likely outcomes of a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo:

*We Indians would, today, be speaking in French, instead of English (which is OK, because French would be the dominant global language, instead of English).

*General elections would be a lot more complicated: if no party got an absolute majority, we’d go into a second round of voting, until an absolute majority emerged.

*Our towns would be much better laid out, with a grid pattern of streets, in the French style.

*We would be driving, very sensibly, on the right hand side of the road.

*We would possess a more evolved sense of je ne se quoi

*Policemen would wear French-style kepis (as they do in Puducherry).

*IPL would be a soccer tournament. And Sourav Gangouli (note spelling) would be a former soccer captain.

*Bollywood movies would be a damn sight better.

*There would be no Hinglish, only Frendi. For example, instead of calling tomatoes “tamatar”, we’d call them “pomme d’amour” (as they do in Mauritius).

*We would be eating baguettes, instead of double roti (as they do in Mauritius and elsewhere).

*We would be drinking café au lait, instead of chai (as they do in Vietnam).

*Grape cultivation would be considered an important sector of agricultural production.

*There would be 246 varieties of Amul cheese.

For all this, we would need to personally thank Napoleon, and his victory at Waterloo, on this fateful day 200 years ago.