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The world isn’t our oyster

Given the talent that exists in the country, it’s somewhat of a surprise that India still hasn’t been able to develop top-class think-tanks, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2008 22:08 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times

It’s the ‘I’ in ‘IT’ that India needs to pay attention to. India has made impressive strides in information technology over the years, but we, as a people, need to shift gears to focus on the ‘information’ part of IT. It’s no revelation that India is, at once, in several stages of development and its elite has a disproportionate influence on the trajectory of the nation. Given the dynamics of power and its exercise, that hardly comes as a surprise.

Are we as a nation succumbing to the ease and many pleasures of dumbing down? Are we as elites taking the easy way out — believing that all things can be reduced to a level where nothing can be understood? As we spiral down the path of trivia, yet another challenge faces us squarely: that of a complex, rapidly-changing world where problems demand more dialogue and more cooperation between nations. And, needless to add, more information with perspective.

Many Indians, I have come to believe, are less informed people about the world and its problems. At a time of dramatic change, India is becoming more ignorant at its own peril. And yes, our media — television and print — are contributing to this state of affairs. But there’s a mitigating factor for me at least: the media are not alone in this.

Not that the path of being less informed is special to India and Indians. But for a country still struggling to attain levels of development that would match the most basic needs of its people, Indians have a far greater stake in arriving at an informed perspective about India-in-the-world. There’s no altruism involved here. In October, India’s trade with China crossed $ 30 billion. It’s likely that our trade in the calendar year 2007 will end up at $ 36 billion, senior officials say. We know much more about our largest trading partner, the United States, than we know about China. It also happens that we have a huge, still-to-be resolved border dispute with the ‘factory of the world’.

I’m going to exaggerate the point to make it. Not more than 100 people in India possibly understand the full ramifications of New Delhi’s border dispute with Beijing, many of them suffering the psychological ignominy of having lived through the reverses of the 1962 war. Our trade may be growing, but Indians don’t have access to nuanced, detailed information about China that would allow them to have a perspective of the country and how decisions are taken there. It could be an ‘Indian perspective’ on say, how China plans to tackle the border issue, but an informed polity needs to know how the innards of the Chinese system work when it comes to taking decisions.

In 2001, while in Shanghai to report on the Apec summit, I learnt that the Financial Times of London had opened a news bureau in China’s financial capital. (I don’t know of a single Indian economic daily that has posted a correspondent in Shanghai to report on its impressive economic march and how it links in to doing business with India.)

A little beyond Pakistan, India’s other obsession, we remain uninterested in developments in Afghanistan. If, finally, there’s some good news for the US and its allies from Iraq, it’s all bad news from Afghanistan. Remember, the world paid a price for forgetting about Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out from there. It was left to the mercy of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, who had all the time in the world plot the spectacle of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Given that jehadi activities in Afghanistan were directly linked to Pakistan and what it was doing in J&K, the strengthening of al-Qaeda-Taliban forces is of definite concern to India and Indians. South Block may be focused on Afghanistan, but Indians don’t seem terribly interested in what’s going on there. Afghanistan is the numerical toll in the latest suicide attack.

But my focus is not on China or Afghanistan. It’s about the kind of India we want. As another year starts, the noise about India taking its rightful place at the global table has risen a pitch or two. As some Indians aspire that their country achieve superpower status, a reality check is in order. Just one fact should do: the National Family Health Survey-3 (2005-06), made public in October, put the prevalence of anaemia among children aged 6-59 months at 79 per cent, up 4 percentage points from NFHS-2 (1998-99).

Only internal strength adds up to international muscle. There’s little doubt that India’s new image of a non-flood, non-drought story in the international press has much to do with its near double-digit growth rates and the buying power of its middle/richer classes. Yes, India must play its rightful role in global affairs. It’s not as if such a role has eluded India in the past. But in today’s fast-changing world, the country’s global role is dynamic, ever-changing.

Writing in the Financial Times on December 18, Richard Haass, President of the US Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out, “The 21st-century world is far more dynamic and fluid than the relatively stable and predictable period of the Cold War.” For a country smack in the middle of a difficult neighbourhood, India needs much more than ‘retired wisdom’ — something in ample flow in the seminar rooms across New Delhi. It needs current information and analysis.

Given the talent that exists in the country, it’s somewhat of a surprise that India still hasn’t been able to develop top-class think-tanks: that fine line between academic and journalistic exercise. State/private parties involved in the existing institutions have yet to attract the best talent. Clearly, this is one area that calls for generous endowments from the steadily-growing number of very, very rich Indians. The country’s future lies in knowing about itself, the immediate neighbourhood and the rest of the world. Wealth can create opportunity; it can also produce complacency and insularity. India has to widen the opportunity base for its people if their most basic needs are to be taken care of: both within the country and abroad. If Indian indentured labour peopled countries as far apart as Malaysia and Surinam in the 19th century, the new face of India abroad is its professional class and, now, Indian capital crossing the kalapani to take over big companies abroad. In these days of rapid changes, India first must be an informed nation to stay ahead of the competition and create the space for its growth — domestically and abroad. Time to pull up our socks.