I returned on Friday from the Frankfurt Book Fair where India was the Guest of Honour. In real terms, this meant the resence of Arjun Singh and Karan Singh, of nearly every Indian writer of consequence from Vikram Seth to Gulzar to Shobhaa Dé; a cultural programme featuring Rabbi Shergill, Astad Deboo and many others; and of such long queues at the one good Indian restaurant at the fair (run by ITC) that the food nearly ran out.
I was not part of the 700 literature/culture people who comprised the official Indian representation at the fair. My presence had to do with the launch of the German edition of India — Then and Now, a picture book to which the noted historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee and myself contributed the text. Rudrangshu couldn’t make it to Frankfurt so I found myself conducting all the activities usually associated with a launch entirely on my own.
Because the German publishers had wanted to handle all the launch hoopla at a relatively elevated level, my day consisted of rushing from print interview to panel discussion to electronic media interview. And because nobody had any real interest in me as an individual, every conversation revolved around the new India. After a while, many of the discussions/interviews/live events seemed to follow a relatively predictable pattern; I got asked the same things again and again.
Here’s a rough list of the kinds of things that the Germans seemed to care about and the questions they tended to ask.
I tried to answer their questions as honestly as possible but perhaps you disagree. In which case, send us your take on these issues at the e-mail address given below. Our website will carry the best responses.
Superpower India: I kept being asked whether we wanted to be a superpower and what that meant for the rest of the world.
I answered that I thought the era of multiple superpowers had ended with the Cold War. Today’s world is closely inter-dependent, in economic and political terms, and the only superpower that matters is the United States. Love the US or hate it, its dominance is still a fact of life. So it was foolish to talk about India as a superpower on par with the US.
However, we are one of the world’s biggest countries; we are growing at an encouraging rate; we have the world’s largest, most educated and hardest-working middle class; we represent a huge market; and, unlike China, we have no tyranny but are content to be the world’s largest democracy.
So yes, the world will have to take us seriously. More seriously than it takes Germany, for instance, and about as seriously as it takes the whole of Europe.
Globalisation: This led to a second set of questions. Many Europeans were losing their jobs because Indian companies paid such low salaries, making it easier for multinationals to outsource jobs to India. Wasn’t it legitimate, therefore, for the West to fear India and to take steps to protect itself?
I usually replied by saying that we did not invent globalisation; the West did.
For years now, we have been lectured about the virtues of globalisation. We have been told to drop tariffs and to allow cheaper Western products to flood our marketplaces. When we have responded that this will have disastrous effects for Indian industry and for Indian agriculture, that lakhs of people will lose their livelihoods and hundreds of factories will close down, we have been told not to be so shortsighted. Progress is about economic efficiency. And if Western countries with their economies of scale can produce goods cheaper, then we should welcome this.
When we have complained that the WTO structure seems biased against us and that Western economies use non-tariff barriers to keep out our goods, we have been laughed at and our objections dismissed.
For better or worse, we have grudgingly accepted the mantra of globalisation and have agreed to let our factories close and to let our vanilla farmers go out of business. It has not made us happy but we have finally bought into the capitalist edict that goods must flow freely across borders.
Now, when we have a competitive advantage, when one of our natural resources (educated Indians) is much cheaper than anything in the West, the argument for globalisation has suddenly been turned on its head.
Americans protest that their jobs have been Bangalored; Germans complain about the skills of Indian IT programmers who do their jobs twice as quickly and at half the cost; and Brits abuse our call-centre workers.
So, whatever happened to the argument for globalisation? To all that stuff about economic efficiency being all-important? How come it doesn’t apply to us?
When they asked me in Frankfurt if I thought that the power of India’s educated middle class represented a threat to them, I said, quite honestly, that it did.
And when they asked if they should be frightened, I was as honest.
Be scared, I said, be very scared. The Indians are coming.
Indian’s Economic Progress: All questions about our growth were usually followed by questions about inequality. Was it true, they asked, that the fruits of the recent prosperity had not been evenly shared?
I was upfront in my responses. Yes, I said, there was no doubt that urban Indians had benefited much more than those in the villages. It was a source of constant shame to me that even as I was sitting in Frankfurt enjoying the global focus on India, some poor farmer was contemplating suicide in Andhra or Vidarbha.
Part of the problem was that modern patterns of development tended to be urban-oriented. Part of it was that we had paid insufficient attention to agriculture: farmers still received too tiny a proportion of the price their produce was eventually sold at. And part of it was that we had not made credit available to villagers who were still at the mercy of usurious moneylenders.
But now that we had seen past all this Indian Shining rubbish, there were some serious attempts to address the issues. Industrialists like the Ambanis and the Mittals were spending crores on modernising agricultural distribution; the government was looking at ways of making micro-credit available in the villages to reduce the role of moneylenders and there was recognition that reforms would not succeed unless they were accompanied by social welfare measures.
But yes, I conceded, as an Indian who had benefited from the new prosperity, I felt guilty and ashamed each time a farmer committed suicide.
Radical Islam: Every Western country is now obsessed with the ‘Muslim problem’. How, they wanted to know, did India cope?
My answer usually took three parts. First of all, I said, it would be foolish to pretend that there were no Hindu-Muslim tensions in India or that Muslims did not face discrimination. These tensions always simmered below the surface and when unscrupulous politicians exploited them, the consequences were disastrous — as in Gujarat or over the Babri Masjid dispute where the pettiness of Hindu politicians was easily matched by the demagoguery of Muslim leaders.
Despite this tension, I said, I could think of no country in the world where a Muslim minority had been so convincingly integrated into the mainstream. Our great movie idols were Muslims; no Hindu resented that his daughter put Shahrukh Khan’s photo on her wall, lusted after Salman Khan or sent e-mails to Aamir Khan. Our President is a Muslim: and his religion is less of an issue than his hairstyle.
There’s no doubt that the fundamental assumption that led to the creation of Pakistan — that Hindus and Muslims could not live in peace — has been convincingly rebutted: just look at the number of Indian Muslims who have died fighting Pakistan in our wars.
But, I conceded, there is a third factor. There is a global radicalisation of Islam. Muslims plant bombs in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan even though these are all Muslim majority countries. Muslim minorities are radicalised in High Wycombe despite there being no tradition of Hindu-Muslim conflict in Buckinghamshire.
So, yes, there will be Islamic fanatics and Muslim terrorists in India. But we should treat them as a symbol of what is happening to Islam worldwide, and not as a failure of Indian secularism.
And finally: Two things struck me about the many interviews and events I took part in at Frankfurt. One: the attitude of the public at the live events (panel discussions, interviews in front of an audience etc) was respectful. Obviously, Germany is as fascinated by the new India as the rest of the world.
And two: I hope to God, we don’t screw it up this time as we usually manage to do. After so many false starts, India is finally ready for take-off.