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Counterpoint: Postcard from Europe

Nearly everybody I met treated India with interest, respect and informed curiosity, writes Vir Sanghvi.Has global opinion about India changed?

india Updated: Jun 11, 2006 12:43 IST

On the grounds that you will probably have heard more than you need about Rahul Mahajan/cocaine, about petrol prices and about who-did-Murli-Deora-really-clear-the-hike-with, I’m going to spare you a column on current political events.

Besides — and it is time to come clean — I’ve been travelling so much over the last few weeks that I’m not sure if I am plugged in enough into the Indian political scene to offer you any insights that are worth reading.

So, instead, here is an entirely subjective take on the view of India that I have encountered on my travels abroad over the last month. As with the column I wrote a few months ago on the opinions I heard during my travels within India, all the usual disclaimers apply: my travels were restricted in scope (to Europe, mainly), so I can’t claim that I met a representative sample of global opinion; even within this limited area, I tended to meet people who were already interested in world affairs (rather than the man on the street); and, in my experience, polite foreigners tend not to be too scathing in their criticisms so perhaps I got a low-calorie version of their real views.

But, for what it is worth, here’s what I found.

The Economy: I was abroad in the weeks after the Sensex crashed and travelling again during the second global crash (set off by the rise in US interest rates). The papers told us that the Indian market had lost something like 26 per cent of its value over the last year. So I waited for the usual questions: Is the India story over? Has the bubble burst? Was India no more the flavour of the year?

Oddly enough, most people I spoke to — and keep in mind that I tend to hang out very little with stockbrokers and investment bankers — were not downbeat about the Indian economy at all. The fall in the Sensex was seen as a reflection of a global trend and the overall optimism about India had endured.

The questions I was asked (and which I was singularly ill-equipped to answer) were these: Could the economy grow above 8 per cent? Is 10 per cent growth feasible? How strong is the Left’s influence on policy-making?

People with no great interest in economics still spoke admiringly of India as an IT success story and enviously of our outsourcing boom. Nobody mentioned manufacturing (though our growth rate in that sector vastly exceeds the 8 per cent overall growth in GDP), but they all spoke highly of what they saw as India’s young, well-educated, English-speaking, super-intelligent workforce.

Listening to them, I wondered if IT and the BPO boom could serve as India’s Wine Syndrome.

Wine Syndrome?

Well, some market researchers believe that the image of a country as a brand depends on many intangibles. One of them is the ability to make such luxury goods as wine for the international market. Countries that export wine (the US, France, Germany, Italy etc) tend to be regarded as capable of delivering quality. Relatively new entrants on the global wine scene such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and, now, even Chile, have also gained: because people buy their wine, they regard them as worthy of respect. (Isn’t ‘Made in South Africa’ more attractive a label than, say, ‘Made in Zimbabwe’?)

As much as I respect Grover Vineyards, I don’t think our Cabernet Sauvignon is going to transform India’s image. But IT and outsourcing might just do it. My guess is that global respect for our IT skills and for the intelligence of our BPO operators will turn ‘Made in India’ into a label to respect — after so many decades during which it was regarded as a euphemism for shoddy quality and missed delivery dates. So, the influence of IT may extend beyond the technology sector and to Brand India as a whole.

China/Pakistan: For me, this was the real surprise. For nearly all of the last decade, all discussions of India have resulted in either China being mentioned (in the economic context) or Pakistan being referred to (in a threat-of-nuclear-war sort of way). This time around, neither came up.

There seems now to be an increasing acknowledgement that while quantitatively, China has huge advantages over us (faster rates of growth, much more foreign investment, centralised rapid decision-making etc), India has certain qualitative advantages.

We are seen as being more stable (because of democracy), more subject to the rule of law and better at processes that require skill, intelligence or education. This is not to suggest that India will overtake China in the affections of investors (we won’t) but that people are less willing to speak of the two countries in the same breath. China may be a great success but India has it own story.

So it is with Pakistan. For years, it has always struck me that the only reason why anybody anywhere in the world bothers to mention Pakistan is because of conflicts with its neighbours (India and Afghanistan). Otherwise, it could occupy roughly the same space in the global consciousness as Bangladesh.

But this time, nobody mentioned Pakistan. Nobody seemed too bothered about the Kashmir problem. And the threat of nuclear war never came up.

Why should this be so?

Partly, it is because relations between India and Pakistan have been relatively event-free for the last couple of years. But I suspect that it also has something to do with the international community’s tendency to look at South Asia through the prism of Washington.

If America thinks India’s nuclear programme is not a problem (and the Indo-US deal on this issue helps suggest that), then the Western world is not worried. And ever since Pakistan became a client state of America and General Musharraf was appointed George Bush’s viceroy, the West has treated Islamabad as no more than a slightly troublesome pet which will nevertheless jump through the hoop when the State Department blows the whistle.

Despite India’s anger at what we see as Washington’s indulgence of Islamabad, the truth is that America’s political colonisation of Pakistan has actually made South Asia seem like a safer place — and India has benefited.

Minorities: My most recent trip was to Vienna for the India-EU Roundtable. One of the subjects on the agenda was how liberal societies should treat minorities. Nearly everywhere I have gone over the last three months, India’s experience has been top of the mind.

For decades now, I have heard Europeans give vent to ignorant rubbish about how ‘Hindu India’ handles its Muslim minority. And I have to say that, after Gujarat, it became extremely embarrassing to participate in any such discussion because while the Europeans may have been ill-informed, there was no doubt that we had much to be ashamed of.

At the Roundtable, I listened with awe as Professor Zoya Hassan delivered a 15-minute masterly summary of India’s experience that was so exhaustive in its scope that it took my breath away.

While the EU has had to struggle unsuccessfully with religious protests (over the Danish cartoons, for instance) and with plain old racism (the French attitude to LN Mittal’s bid for Arcelor), India has coped much better with the problems inherent in a multi-linguistic, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.

The EU side had little to say when Zoya Hassan explained why so few Indian Muslims were attracted to al-Qaeda. It wasn’t just that we had democracy, she said, it was because we were an inclusive society.

Sujata Mehta of the PMO, an ex-officio member of the Roundtable, explained that while we had our problems, our greatest strength was that our minorities rarely questioned their identity as Indians. Contrast this with democratic Britain, for instance, where so many UK-born Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin will sign up for the global jihad. For all of the UK’s politically-correct multi-culturalism (which, by the way, I think has now gone too far — but that’s a different column), racial minorities still feel alienated enough from the mainstream to search for global (such as pan-Islamic) identities.

It pleased me to note the respect with which Sujata and Zoya were listened to. Now that they have minority problems of their own, Europeans are suddenly taking India’s experience more seriously. I was especially pleased when Zoya made a point that took them all by surprise: as disgraceful, horrifying and indefensible the massacres in Gujarat were, what was encouraging was that the outrage they provoked cut across all communities in India. The worst critics of the Gujarat government were not Muslims, but were Hindus. It is a point that needs to be made again and again.

And finally: The alert reader will have noticed that nearly all of the news I received was good. Obviously, some of this had to do with the desire of my European hosts not to give offence. But I have to say that there was a very real sense in which nearly everybody I met treated India with interest, respect and — at the very least — informed curiosity. Clearly, this is a good time to be an Indian.

Now, all we have to do is make sure that we don’t screw it up, as we usually manage to do.