Monday, May 26, 2008


India is so excited by the idea of becoming a major power that our new found confidence is changing into arrogance long before it happens. If it does…

‘If you’ve done it, it ain’t braggin,’ is an old Texan saying.

But if you attend a business conference abroad on India, like I did recently, you’d think it’s an old one out of New Delhi.

For almost 6 hours, it was a non-stop gush of staggering numbers and the possibilities for profit in India – a view we’re hearing a lot of nowadays in the media, at seminars and from the government of course. And thanks to an expanding economy Indians are fast shedding their diffidence about themselves and their country. My fear though is that confidence is changing too quickly into arrogance in some quarters - arrogance, that neither has any basis in reality nor advances the interests of ‘Brand India’ in any way. Our image of ourselves is somewhat distorted by this chorus of hallelujahs for India, producing a brash, new nationalism that comes from growing wealth. Fareed Zakaria writes in his new book, ‘The Post-American World’ about this phenomenon in India and China and says that it can morph into something uglier.

It’s already happening in two ways – an intolerance towards anyone who strikes a more skeptical note about rising India and a propaganda-style message about India that is disconnected from reality. Both need to change because we are creating a brand that is bigger than the product.

For instance, if you challenge the idea of a rising India with the dogged optimists by pointing out the Gujarat genocide, you are immediately reminded that Gujarat is also one of the most industrially advanced and administratively efficient states in India. If you point to the fact that most of our engineering graduates are not employable you are immediately reminded that India still produces the highest number of engineering graduates in the world. If you suggest that Indian democracy is so criminalized that it has killed good governance you are told that no other country sends a billion people to the ballot box. This is the new half-full approach to life but it tends to gloss over anything that points in the other direction and brands anyone who says so as a skeptic and a kill-joy. We are in love with the idea of rising India so much that we can immediately marshal the relevant facts to prove it. Remember the ‘India Shining’ campaign? No one knew it would be the lead zeppelin of 2004.

So, just as facts and numbers on India can be spun in a positive way, they can also break down just as easily. For example, India’s growing importance in the world is measured by the fact that we have nuclear weapons, a 9.4% GDP growth rate, the second largest army in the world, a massive geographical territory, a billion people, a politically stable climate and the current flavour of the season internationally, a democratic form of government. This is what the world sees and acknowledges as powerful and this is what fuels India’s aspirations. But a great power is fundamentally supposed to be able to positively influence events, something we can’t do even in our own backyard at the moment. Afghanistan is a mess, Pakistan is losing control over itself, Bangladesh can’t decide when to have elections, Nepal is in transition and Sri Lanka in civil war. India has little or no control over events in its own neighbourhood, let alone projecting its power around the world. Besides even when the chance arose India could not take a bold stand. It refused to condemn China on its actions in Tibet and it did business with the Burmese junta at the height of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

On the economy, I can’t interpret the numbers because I am not an economist. But I do know this. A vast majority, 700 million Indians are still on two dollars a day or less. Logically that can’t make us a powerful country in the near future even if more and more Indian billionaires are populating lists of the wealthiest people on the planet.

I’m sure I don’t have to expand on the law and order situation. Most of us have had our share of let-downs and shock defeats with the police. And externally, our nukes might deter China and Pakistan but our government can’t guarantee that bombs won’t kill our people in a bazaar.

My point here is not to say that we shouldn’t be optimistic about India or that India isn’t a rising power. Looking at where we came from, of course it is. But we need to see where we have to go before we acquire the bragging rights. Let’s get rid of the arrogance, and listen to the skeptics. The aspirations of a billion people demand it.

This is the first in a series of columns also available on the NDTV website.


Unknown said...

This is a appropriate wake up article which needs to be out there in the media more:

Here are some facts:

1. < 1.5% = India's contribution to world trade.
- From the Economist

2. 3rd world wanting to be 2nd world = By Parag Khanna, Brookings Institute

3. 80% of Indian children do not finish High school.

4. Per capita income of Trinidad and Tobago (standard of living) 4 times higher than India.

5. The trickle down effect of GDP growth= quoted to be one of the lowest in the world i.e, the bottom 5th of the population receives the least of the GDP growth of all the world regions- From The Economist.

Plenty more stats/facts to quote, but the picture is clear and I dont know where this notion of "superpower" came from. India is in no position to "project" power neither economically nor militarily. We dont even have a fully functional aircraft carrier.

To even become a Middle income country (we are presently the LIG group) it would probably take 25 years atleast if we are lucky!


CM said...

So where exactly are Indians bragging? From _your_ two experiences you decide to write a article on that?

And where do you get your 700 million figures. Whats your source?

Starting off new in your career arent you?
The likes of you sell your souls to gain acceptance in western cirlces and what other way than than to dis India.

Try as you may...but the new generation of Indian will tread over your articles...because they dont care. You can be apologetic and cower to your masters...your problem. Dont tell Indians to follow you.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

CM - I reserve the right to decide what comments get published on my blog and which ones I choose to answer. Constructive criticism (argued with facts) of the content of the article is appreciated. Any more comments that appear to me to be a personal attack will be deleted.

Vikram said...

Well wait a moment Alaphia, I dont see how hearing ceaseless and perhaps unjustified optimism about India in a conference OUTSIDE our country can convince you that Indians are 'bragging'. In fact, a lot of the popular media like movies (apart from the over the top glamour), and the news media paint a different picture. In my conversations with other Indians India is rarely talked about as a superpower, the emphasis always seems to be on infrastructure, politics, movies or cricket (the order depends on the person). The superpower card is mostly played by big businesses as an advertising strategy and to cover up their own violations of the law and human rights. Please stop pandering to Western elites.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

What is your point? You've corroborated what I've said in my piece. There are serious human rights violations taking place and theres a big gloss on everything going on inside and part of its coming from big businesses. You appear to agree with me.

Also, your judgement that I'm pandering to the western elite is a reflection of my argument. You just can't offer an alternative perspective about India without being accused of being a traitor or as in your case a panderer. Some of the comments on my blog are fine evidence to corroborate my argument even further.

Vikram said...

I am afraid the problem here is (as it is with a lot of western commentary about India), the sweeping blanket statements. For example you say, "India is so excited by the idea of becoming a major power that our new found confidence is changing into arrogance long before it happens." So who is India ?, India could be certain sections of the media or the big businesses, farmers struggling to pay debts, university students excited by the new opportunities that they have today .... I guess everyone has their own style, but perhaps you will find that people are more responsive to articles if they are less judgemental.

I am sorry Alaphia, but the western media does not seem to be very objective when it comes to India. Headlines like "India buys company X", "Company Y now in Indian hands" and lines like the 'Indians choose to read about filmstar X when there were floods in state Y' (did they have a choice ?). The articles seem not to be so much as an exposition into India's problems and their causes, but almost insidious propaganda to make western readers feel good about their own supposed egalitarianism (never once have I seen a NYT article on why Americans cant have a moment of silence for all the Iraqis killed in the war), any criticism and skepticism is carefully directed at the community in question. For example the Catholic Church of this city did this, the president is stupid, person X is a racist .... unfortunately the Indian journalists simply keep propagating this unfair journalism

Sachin Sawant said...

i think u have got it wrong about India......i guess u are been biased. We know that we have lot to do before we become a super power and common man in India isn't bragging about we becoming a super power.......

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Vikram, if your point is that the western media is biased about India, then that is a separate argument. Neither have I made it here nor have I challenged it.

Let me also point out that I actually did specify who I meant by India in paragraph 3 - media, big business at seminars and conferences and the government.

Bhuvanesh - my email contact is on my blog.

Vikram said...

"Our image of ourselves is somewhat distorted by this chorus of hallelujahs for India" , that does not seem to imply big business and media. Anyways, the important thing is that there is a lot of change in India, a lot of it is good and a lot bad, the better each Indian understands this the better our country's future will be. No need to argue endlessly on whether we are arrogant or not.

This whole superpower deal is quite un-Indian actually, I dont know if you understand Hindi/Urdu, but there is a line from the movie Muqaddar Ka Sikander,
"Woh Sikander kya tha jisne zulm se jeeta jahan,
Pyaar se jeete dilon ko woh jhuka de aasman". So Indians will win the world over with our movies, food, $2500 cars, cricket leagues, cheap medicines .... no need to "project" power around :)

Arvind Siva said...

not happening dude. cricket and indian movies are irrelevant except to indians living abroad. nobody watches cricket cept for asians and australians.
moreoever indian movies are plagiarized, amateurish and inaccesible to foreigners besides containing sexism and racism and religious propaganda which makes neutral viewers uncomfortable. also talkingg about cheap drugs theyre only cheap coz the pharma companies steal the formulas from foreign majors. as long as they sell them in india theyre cheap and safe from lawsuits coz india hasnt signed international copyright acts. all changes if you start exporting these drugs...then theyll get their asses sued. ditto with bollywood, they make so lil money in world terms....50-70 million is nothing i n world terms and thats how much the most successful movies make. well an average hollywood flop makes that much so financially bollywood movies are quite irrelevant and thats why you don tsee that many plagiarism lawsuits. for their own good indian producers better make sure they dont make more money or theyll get sued as they should for stealing ideas, stories,shots, songs, music, sequences.
some humility is what the article is asking for and i think thats in order. the greatest talent in the world goes about its business without hamming about itself. if youre relevant or good enough the world will do the hamming. people only blow their own trumpet when they dont have any inherent quality.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Arvind, Thanks for getting the essence of this article. It has been surprisingly difficult for a lot of people.

Vikram said...

Alaphia, I am now appalled, so this was the essence of your article ?, that Indian movie makers are nothing but racist, communal thugs.
Was Chak De India racist ?, was Jodha Akbar communal ?, oh and Aamir was blatantly anti-Muslim wasnt it ? Dor, obviously was sexist and amateurish. Swades was so clearly nationalistic propaganda. So Indian movies are stupid and American Pie was an absolute classic wasnt it ?

That Indian pharma companies are cheap because they make AIDS medicines accessible to poor Indians and Africans. So these big global pharma companies must be absolute saints then, oh apart from using poor people in India as guinea pigs. But I guess that doesnt matter I guess Indians being arrogant and all.

Its not all about money Mr. Arvind and Alaphia, Indian movies and TV shows offer entertainment to poor Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis at least. They employ thousands of people in India. Its about livelihoods also.

Yes, greatness is not at all about self trumpeting, but it is also not about losing your own objectivity to please someone who has more money and power.

Arvind Siva said...

dear vikram
i never said that cheap indian drugs are a bad thing. i know they help many asian and african poor. i also agree that bollywood however derivative provides genuine entertainment to many. and thats absolutely valid. however i was merely responding to a comment on the board that said

"So Indians will win the world over with our movies, food, $2500 cars, cricket leagues, cheap medicines .... "

i dont agree with that point. i dont think cricket, drugs and indian movies will win the world over. im sorry you are so appaled but that wasnt the intention.. we just want to have a healthy debate.

btw there is a lot of sexism and racism in indian cinema and society - lets not forget the caste system and the appaling treatment of women. theres no point being blind to it. i will illustrate with examples in a later post. also this is exactly the point that the writer of the blog is trying to raise. any criticism of india is met with passionate anger and dismissed rather than sparking off a healthy debate. and any criticism of india doesnt mean people are pandering to western opinion.

Vikram said...

Okay man, I dont know what you're intentions were. I really dont want to go on and on about this. I know there is a lot of casteism, racism and sexism in India. I am not ignorant about these issuues. Let me give you an example, in Rajasthan's Bhilwara district, in certain communities, women (sometimes even girls) are sold by their husbands to other men, and the children resulting from the marriage are left as orphans. This practice is called Nath-Pratha. There are many brave ppl who are fighting against this inspite of the state govts appalling reluctannce to admit this even happens. I can go on and on about atrocities against Dalits (murdered by certain upper caste groups simply for owning land), North Easterners (thrown out of certain bar's in our nations capital simply for looking different), Biharis (killed simply for seeking work) Kashmiris (arrested and killed without reason) ...

What journos should understand is that starting your article saying that 'Indians selling wives', or 'India girls aborted', is including those Indians in the practice who have nothing to do with this, and that I think is the real reason for anger. See my earlier post, where I point out how careful western media is to isolate the parts of their society which indulge in unacceptable behaviour. Anyway, lets not go on abt this, I think you and I mostly agree on what the issues are but differ on how it should be presented.

Arvind Siva said...

fair enough!! journalists shouldnt generalize.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

You've missed the essence of this argument completely. But your comments are welcome.