Wednesday, December 20, 2006

India in Search of its New Identity

A few months back (September 2005), I participated in a one-hour debate in Delhi over BBC radio on "Who runs your world?" This debate was more notable for what it was not than for what it was. I had expected the panelists to discuss the evolving roles of various institutions, including the government, in a global economy, and how they affect our lives. Instead, from the very start, the debate turned mostly to India's emerging power in the world, and predictions about what can be expected in the coming years.

In the interest of not offending anyone personally, let me indicate only the official positions held by the other panelists: a cabinet minister in the central government, a president of a major industry association, a co-founder of a pharmaceutical company, a head of a government-run cultural organization, and a prominent academician associated with an economic research institute (funded by government).

The discussion started with the president of the industry association claiming that the next decade is India's, and that the question is not whether India will be a superpower, but how soon. He cited many national statistics, including the rate of growth in GDP, and talked about India's thrust in research and innovation that has led to the recent "discovery of two molecules" by Indian scientists. The economist dismissed corruption in India as not worthy of discussion, as almost every developing country has varying degrees of poor governance. The head of the cultural institute trumpeted India's democratic system as an example for the rest of the world, and highlighted its importance in India’s emerging position as a superpower.

The union cabinet minister opened his remarks with politically correct statements, and expressed his concern for the rural sector that depends mostly on agriculture. He assured everyone that the government was allocating large funds to rural areas through employment schemes. When a member of the audience in the debate hall (an NRI residing in the U.S.) expressed her unhappiness with the difficulties faced by the public because of poor governance, the minister retaliated by pointing out that she was probably not a good “ambassador” for India abroad. The minister went on to praise the country’s ancient culture and traditions, and pointed out that neither the British rule nor the "free" foreign press in India, led by Rupert Murdoch of Star TV and the BBC, was able to impact it. Judging from the applause of the audience, most attendees were very pleased at those remarks.

It is probably understandable that the nation is hungering for success after several decades of poor economic performance. Indians want to be respected for their recent achievements, and look forward to being recognized as a leading economic and military power. The tone of this BBC debate and the numerous articles with similar viewpoints authored by Indians that now appear almost daily in the media confirm my suspicion that all this talk is leading the debate in the wrong direction.

A well known Indian journalist recently argued in his opinion column that the U.S. is in a decline, and India will soon gain its rightful role on the world stage. He even cited the increasing non-white population in America as a reason for a likely future tilt in public opinion in America in favor of India.

It appears that the participants in the so-called "national debate" are mostly the beneficiaries of the recent economic expansion--those who work in the information technology sector and the major industries operating in urban areas. Many of them seem to be unaware or unconcerned about the predicament of the great majority of the nation's population, especially the 700 million people who live in the villages. The country has no less than 600 million people whose daily income is less than $1 per person, the international definition for poverty level. The assumption is that the poor will one day benefit from the trickle-down effects of a growing urban economy. Therefore, those in power--both financially and politically--feel no need to address their plight directly.

What is equally disturbing is the apparent arrogance among many who elevate themselves by talking down other nations. The argument about the decline of the West is such an example. Instead of trying to learn what has made America, Europe and Japan succeed in the last century, the Indian media is busy playing to the national pride.

I don't share these narrow views. For example, the demographic argument that non-whites will have greater influence and loyalty to India is misguided. America has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and while color has been a cause of discrimination in the past, it is still ideas, innovation and risk-taking that have assured the country’s progress. Individual freedom has enabled the country to correct itself, even when national leaders have swayed the pendulum too much in one direction or the other. America's strength lies in its diversity and the tolerance for new ideas, and it will be a mistake to underestimate that power.

The danger India faces is one that arises from overestimating the impact of its recent economic success, which is, by the way, demand driven from the West. A little bit of humility and a realistic understanding of the power of ideas that makes the world what it is not only today, but in the future, would help a great deal. All this talk about India's culture and traditions as superior to those of other nations gets a little stale. What really counts is what we are today as a people, the values we share with others, and what we leave behind for our children and grandchildren.

Instead of talking down to others and trying to elevate oneself, why don't we focus our attention to improving the lives of all our people, in a fair and just society, with equal opportunity for everyone? We need to think beyond our own self-–nationally and internationally--and learn to work in a global economy where other nations have their strengths and weaknesses. Let us not rejoice at their failures and at our small successes.

There is already too much talk of India becoming a "superpower." What kind of superpower? What happens then?

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