Thursday, April 24, 2008

India Abroad April 25, 2008


Community doubts the India story

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Parag Khanna´s thesis in his new book, `The Second World´ is different
from the generally accepted notion that India, Russia and Japan,
together with China, the European Union and the United States will
form the power centres in the new global order. He does not believe
that China and India will lead the world in the second half of the
twenty-first century. Khanna asserts: "The United States, the European
Union and China already possess most of the total power in the
world—and will do their best to prevent all others from gaining ground
on them. Russia, Japan and India cannot assert themselves globally,
militarily or otherwise; they are not super powers; but rather
balancers whose support (or lack thereof) can buttress or retard the
dominance of the three super powers without preventing it outright. In
fact, they are being outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU and
China in their own regions."

It took Khanna a number of trips to a hundred countries and 466 pages
of writing to put forward his theory, but for the first generation of
Indian Americans in New York, it is pure instinct to conclude that
India will miss the opportunities of the twenty-first century. Their
occasional visits to India only reinforce their impression and they
are not averse to proclaiming it. The cover stories of reputed
newspapers and magazines about the Indian miracle leave them
unimpressed. Not one in a group of twenty Indian professionals in a
recent gathering in New Jersey shared the view that India is on the
threshold of being a major world power.

I began with the growth rate. But is not the inflation rate also of
the same magnitude? An Indian American retorted. I then talked about
the success of IT. What percentage of the IT industry in the world is
in India? Have we invented anything new in the industry? Is doing
slave labour for foreign companies for one tenth of the price they pay
in their own countries IT revolution? Look at the letters that the
Government of India sends out. They are still badly typed on brown
paper. I talked about twenty different models of cars available in
India as against the three models we had in the past. O those horrible
roads, they lamented. India should have built roads first before they
allowed foreign cars to come in. I said that these cars are mostly
made in India. And look at the Jaguars and the Land Rovers being owned
by Indians, I said. The Tatas were rich even when we were there; what
is new about them getting richer? Then I talked about Mittal, Narayana
Murthy and Azim Premji. They just yawned. They had heard about these
miracles before, but they thought they were isolated success stories.

I talked about the revolution in the banking industry. Checks can be
cashed in any city in India at par, credit cards are common and most
trade establishments accept debit cards. Nonsense, someone said. He
went two months ago to Calicut, now the harder to pronounce
`Kozhikode`, and wanted to cash a traveler's cheque. No bank would
entertain him. Finally he went to a particular branch of the State
Bank of India, which was authorized to handle foreign exchange. He had
to fill in many forms and wait for the supervisor only to be told that
his signatures did not match. Once that hurdle was over, the cashier
told him that they simply did not have enough cash to pay him. Would
he come in the afternoon, please? He could not care less that an
average Indian did not go around cashing traveler's cheques every day.

I mentioned the construction boom and the posh apartments coming up in
every city. But the lack of cleanliness in posh areas in major cities
left them unimpressed. You have to step around filth, stray dogs and
cows before we enter those palaces, they said. And then they talked
about corruption and gave examples of petty corruption they
encountered even a few months ago. My argument that corruption was a
global phenomenon and no country was free from it made no impact. The
resurgent India did not seem to beckon them at all.

I changed the subject and mentioned the nuclear deal and all hell
broke loose. India has bungled, they all said in unison. Not a single
one accepted that as a democracy, India had to respect the views of
the parties that supported the Government. Who is this Prakash Karat,
who is determining the future of the country? I, a firm supporter of
the nuclear deal, ended up defending the leftists. I said that the
history of American behaviour towards India in the past had not
generated confidence that it would honour its obligations in the
future. I recalled the Tarapore episode in which the US violated a
bilateral agreement on the ground that it militated against an
international understanding. There were also apprehensions about the
Hyde Act, I said. The mention of the Hyde Act infuriated them further.
The Indian Embassy asked us to campaign for the Hyde Act, they said.
We went to our Congressmen and Senators and got them to sign it and
then we were told that the Hyde Act was the obstacle. Where were the
experts when we were asked to use our clout to promote the Hyde Act?
Do they not know that we can buy fuel and technology from France and
Russia once the exemption is given and thus bypass the Hyde Act
altogether? I had to give up the role of the devil's advocate and join
them in saying that the Government underestimated the fury of the
left. Since the Government did not want to face an election, the deal
had to be put on the back burner. Then came a harangue about the
thoughtlessness of the Government and how the Democrats would take
India to the cleaners, come 2009!

These were the same Indian Americans, who passionately campaigned
against the Burton Amendment, built up the India caucus in the
Congress to foil the machinations of the likes of Aulakh on the Hill
and defended the nuclear tests of 1998. Why have we lost them despite
high growth and prosperity, IT cities, better roads, cars and the
construction boom? Has the glare of positive publicity in the western
media blinded us to the need of educating the Indian community?

I pulled out a couple of books to reassure myself that the Indian
Americans, who talked to me, were wrong. Mira Kamdar´s `Planet India`
and Shashi Tharoor´s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone` gave
me some solace. After living in Bombay in 1968 in hard conditions,
Kamdar found that her uncle and aunt in Gurgaon now had two
refrigerators, pasteurized milk, flat-screen television, email, cell
phones and a Honda car. "No democracy in history has undergone a
transformation of India's magnitude or velocity", she concludes. But
after just a few pages, she too warns: "Clearly, India faces daunting
challenges that must be overcome-and fast- or the incredible momentum
of Indian resurgence will suffer." Tharoor is even more explicit:
"Whether through elections or quotas, political mobilization in
contemporary India has asserted the power of old identities, habits,
faiths and prejudices. Transcending them will be the challenge for the
Indian polity in the twenty-first century. India must rise above the
past if we are to conquer the future." Old faiths and prejudices seem
to still cloud the vision of our brethren in the United States.