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Brown man’s burden

India is still dominated by social snobbery. And if we don’t confront our own class prejudices, we'll be guilty of exactly the same sort of narrow-mindedness that we confront in the global arena, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2007 04:20 IST

So — as India discovered this week — Infosys, Thomas Friedman and call centres notwithstanding, the world is not quite flat. At least not yet. The prejudicial snub from two luxury giants, Jaguar and Orient Express, was enough to provoke even the genteel and mild-mannered Ratan Tata into contemptuous and public anger against the entrenched white supremacy of the West. The non-believers, he said, were ignorant people blinded by an archaic vision of India as a “land of tigers, jungles and cobras”.

The timing of the controversy couldn’t have been more ironic. It seemed ludicrous that India’s most respected business house was battling barriers of bias in a week when a beleaguered Citigroup had just elevated an Indian (Vikram Pandit) to the top job. And just to throw another confusing ingredient into the cauldron, a Pew Foundation survey this week revealed that Indians have a higher opinion of their own culture than citizens of any other nation. Sixty-four per cent of us apparently “agree completely and without reservations” that India is culturally superior to other countries.

It’s not exactly clear why, if we are such a self-confident people, we jump through hoops each time one of our own gets Corporate America’s approval. But that may be the real story behind the angry headlines on the Tata battle for a level-playing field: our own contradictions and hypo-crisies as a country on the move.

First, there’s no question that the feeble attempt to criticise the Tata bid for Jaguar or the reluctance by Orient Express to allow it a larger role in management (Taj Hotels is its single largest shareholder) is rooted in the worst sort of historic bias and insecurity. When a Jaguar car-dealer in Miami, Florida, tells The Wall Street Journal that he doesn’t think the “US public is ready for ownership out of India”, we can only sneer at how hopelessly disconnected he is from where the world is headed and wish him happy retirement in Disneyland.

And when the CEO of Orient Express claims that a closer association with the Taj group could only spell a “reduction and erosion” of the brand value of his own hotels, we have to laugh. Maybe we should ask him to try booking a room in Bombay during peak travel season (the one that costs $ 3,000 a night) and compare it with his own chain’s occupancy records. Quite apart from the pathetic irony that a hotel group that is named after the orient should fail to exploit the cache of the exotic east, we are entirely comfortable — in fact almost smug — in the knowledge that the hint of history is precisely what makes our modernity so compelling.

Those who think the made-in-India tag can only be sold at a basement bargain deal has clearly not been out shopping for a while. We know that we can walk the distance between Gucci and Gap, between the Jaguar and the Rs 1 lakh car, between the Paharganj shack-up and the Amar Vilas resort with equal ease — India works precisely because of the number of multitudes she can contain.

We remember that ‘cultural values’ was exactly the sort of lame excuse French company Arcelor came up with to block L.N. Mittal’s takeover. And then, didn’t we show them a thing or two?

So, India may be angry and appalled at the arrogance with which the Tatas have been snubbed. But we are equally confident that in the New World, the force of our economy and entrepreneurial spirit can happily run over the roadblocks as we race ahead to take our place at the global high-table. After all, globalisation has destroyed all the old hierarchies between the First and the Third World; there are no exclusive clubs possible any longer.

But while we swagger with confidence as we fight for our rightful place in the new world order, how do we react to exactly the same conflict on home turf? When it comes to change in our own backyard, are we not just as bigoted about pedigree and just as reluctant to allow new entrants into the charmed but small circle of power and influence? Doesn’t Old India loathe and despise New India in much the same way that a white man in Miami shuddered at the thought of a developing country rolling out his swanky car?

In the last decade, we have watched capitalism devour traditional class distinctions, create first generation billionaires and catapult small towns to the league of big dreams. Often, we disparagingly call this phenomenon ‘new money’. It’s our shorthand for people who are self-made, who possibly don’t speak English in clipped westernised tones and who spend their money in a way that some of us may consider crass. Snotty old city clubs (almost all colonial creations) keep ‘new money’ firmly off the membership rolls, citing exactly the sort of ‘cultural superiority’ that the French had once thrown at India’s face. Blissfully unmindful of our own prejudice, we lament India’s future as we watch the Oxbridge-educated politician being elbowed out by a new wave of netas who make no pretence at sophistication or subtlety. Armchair liberals may theoretically eulogise the emergence of Mayawati and Lalu Yadav’s potent caste politics, but will they be happy to discuss it over a shared lemon tart at the India International Centre dining room? I doubt it.

It’s fashionable for economists to talk about India’s burgeoning middle-class. Each day, a new figure is conjured up to demonstrate the size of the Indian market, and it’s ever expanding purchasing power. But while we hug these statistics (Rs 300 million at last count) because we are chuffed by the self-image of a being a booming economy, do we embrace the people behind the numbers?

Or, should we just go right out and say it? India is still dominated by the worst sort of social snobbery. And if we don’t confront our own class prejudices (variously dressed up as aesthetics, intellectualism or good taste), we will be guilty of exactly the same sort of narrow-mindedness that we confront in the global arena.

Just like the world can’t keep India out, we can no longer keep the rest of India confined on the other side of the gates. Otherwise, when the world is finally flattened by the sheer and inevitable power of globalisation, it’s the older order that will first go under the bulldozer.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7