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.