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‘Get over it’

We are triumphant that each Indian contributes 1/20th less to global warming than the average American. Except, we are the world’s fourth largest polluter, but that’s not something we want to even discuss, writes Samar P Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Nov 04, 2009 22:06 IST

It was a moment we glossed over.

Last week, at this paper’s annual leadership summit in New Delhi, keynote speaker George W. Bush was asked to comment on the feeling in India that we don’t get noticed enough, that the West pays more attention to China than to India.

“Yeah, well,” said George W, “Get over it.”

Bush went on to quickly tell us what we really wanted to hear: that we were an ancient civilisation, a powerful country, a great democracy and all that jazz. But his spontaneous dismissal of our whininess revealed our blind desire for recognition, especially from the West.

Everyone craves recognition. But must we ask every unfortunate visitor: What do you think of India? Why do you think we are denied our greatness?

India’s whines, old and new, reflect our innate insecurity and our ill-articulated view of the road ahead. After spending many eras under the yoke of conquerors and, until the 1990s, as a Third World backwater, I guess insecurity and cravenness go hand in hand.

Today, we think we can — and desperately want to — be saare jahan se achcha.

But being better than the world takes a little more than a few nuclear warheads, a semi-successful cricket team, the glamour of Bollywood and a 6-7 per cent economic growth rate.

It takes vision.

The British bulldog Winston Churchill — he who was no friend of India — was, to me, the greatest exponent of national vision. When things looked dark for Britain during World War II, after the ignominious retreat at Dunkirk, Churchill offered his country an extraordinary, stirring vision: “... we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American philosopher, once said he would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of all the heroes, for one true vision.

In one of my early notebooks, I’ve jotted down the following thought from something called The Visionary’s Handbook: No one
is less ready for tomorrow than the person who holds the most rigid beliefs about what tomorrow will contain.

Barack Obama swept to power and the Nobel peace prize purely on the strength of his vision: Yes, we can.

His former colleagues will reveal, in private, that former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was really an average rocket scientist. He attained his rock star status from an uncommon Indian ability: articulating a vision. The title of his best-selling book was: India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium. “A developed India by 2020, or even earlier, is not a dream,” Kalam once said. “It need not be a mere vision in the minds of many Indians. It is a mission we can all take up — and succeed.”

Indian men and women of vision are hard to forget, people like Emperors Ashoka and Akbar; Dadabhai Naoroji; Mahatma Gandhi. Even the brutal Sanjay Gandhi had a vision, however, well, castrated.

Today’s India craves approval for what it does. But we do not like to explain our actions — primarily because we are often unclear about our plans.

So, we gloat over our new ownership of world cricket, wrenched from the West. Except for triumphalism, we can’t answer the question: What now?

So, we are triumphant that each Indian contributes 1/20th less to global warming than the average American. Except, we are the world’s fourth largest polluter, but that’s not something we want to even discuss. How about offering the world a vision?

We have now reached a point where our leaders shy away from articulating plans and vision, blundering directly into action instead. And action without vision, as several Indian internal quagmires reveal, is a recipe for disaster.

On cricket, we love to hear about Sachin’s greatness from Western commentators, how cricket is a national religion, how fantastic it is to see the atmosphere at our grounds. This is nice. What isn’t is our reluctance to explain the absence of other sporting icons in India, the unsporting behaviour of our crowds, the barbed wire that holds them back. We have no vision for improving our grounds, our sporting facilities, or giving our cricket-mad spectators seats, clean toilets and drinking water.

On climate change, visionaries (will R.K. Pachauri of the Nobel-prize winning team do?) will tell you that there is little harm in discussing the thought balloon floated by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh; that we will win in the long run if we can start reducing our emissions; that there are profits to be made, lives to be improved. Given the extreme positions we take in India these days, it’s hard for Ramesh to explain his vision.

On peace with Pakistan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finds it difficult to even talk of his vision, beyond gingerly saying we need peace in our time. By the way, if — as many say — they do indeed have a vision for Pakistan, its destruction, nothing could be more foolish or revealing of our lack of vision.

It’s funny, though, that a Bush got me started.

Asked of his rush to act without considering the big picture, George W’s father, George H.W. Bush, joked, “Oh, the vision thing.” The Bushes, ever men of action, were not particularly hot on vision.

It’s no surprise that they will soon be forgotten.