By M.V. Kamath
How perceptions of India change in the western, especially American, world! In the mid-1950s, an American journalist, Harold Isaacs wrote a very perceptive book analysing what Americans thought of India. Titled Scratches on our minds, the book did a statistical analysis of what Americans thought of India and China. China, then, was still coming out of its civil war mould. And India had not yet completed a decade of Independence. But in comparison China surprisingly came out better. India was the land of poverty, cows straying on city roads, sanyasis sleeping on beds of thorn, and not a single American had a kind word to say of India. It seldom made news in the American media and if it did at all, it was in unfavourable terms.
In 50 years the American mind set has obviously changed. In the 1950s the American establishment was perceptibly hostile towards India and its ideology of non-alignment. Washington could not care less for what Delhi thought. It was Pakistan that mattered.
How things have changed! The visit of President Clinton initiated the process. And now President Bush is scheduled to visit India some time in March. Bush'svisit, when it happens, is not likely to be as flamboyant as the one made in 2000 by the charismatic Bill Clinton who by his informality?and noticeable disdain towards Pakistan?charmed the media, the public and even parliamentarians, during his sojourn in this country.
But, notes a commentator, ?make no mistake, it will be a considerably more substantial visit that holds the potential of irreversibly transforming India-US relations.? It would appear that the Bush administration is resolute about taking the nuclear deal signed between India and the US?over which there is such a controversy?to its logical conclusion with political observers believing that the President has ?the political will and determination to carry Congress with him.?
There are increasing signs of the flowering of Indo-US friendship. It may not be a big step but only the other day President Bush signed into law a bill naming a Post Office in California after Dulip Singh Saund, the first American of India origin to be elected to the US Congress way back in 1956.
This is a wholly new development. It also reflects America'sincreasing?and positive?interest in India and its progress in the last decade. India is drawing a bumper crop of headlines, most of them supportive.
But what is interesting is that the New York Times has taken a special interest in India. Starting on the paper'sfront page on four consecutive days (December 4, 5, 6 and 7), there appeared a series of articles written by the paper'scorrespondent on the six-lane US-style super high-way linking the four major metros of the country. Accompanying the correspondent on his 3,625 mile journey was a photographer and together they threw light on the good things the super highway had brought in its wake.
To say the least, this is a wholly new development. It also reflects America'sincreasing?and positive?interest in India and its progress in the last decade. India is drawing a bumper crop of headlines, most of them supportive. The first article in the four-part series noted that ?goddess versus man, superstition versus progress, the people versus the state?mile by mile India is struggling to modernise its national highway system, in the process, itself.?
The article said that the government'sdetermination to widen and pave some 40,000 miles of narrow, decrepit national highway ?amounts to the most ambitious infra-structure project since Independence in 1947 and the British building of the subcontinet'srailway network the century before.?
The article said that while the reform process has been fitful, leaving the country trailing its neighbour and rival China, ?India has turned the corner.? India, it said has ?a new identity, thanks to outsourcing, as back office to the world.? The third article noted that the domestic hunger for goods has become an important engine for Indian economy that still lags in exports. After decades of socialist deprivation, when consumer goods were so limited that refrigerators were given pride of place in living rooms, Indians, said the article ?have even more wares to spend money on? like cellphones, air-conditioners and washing machines, Botox, Sushi and Louis Vuitton bags and, perhaps ?the biggest status symbol of all, cars.?
Indians, said the article, are discovering in cars everything Americans did: ?control and freedom, privacy and privilege, speed and status.? But the article also sadly noted that all this bespeaks a larger and troubling shift, quoting a former Minister Major General B.C.Khanduri as saying that the value system of Indians was getting over, with Indians ?gradually increasing everyone for himself.?
The fourth article pointed out that in 1991 India had 23 cities with one million or more people while a decade later the number of such cities had increased to 35, changing the very nature of India, not only in financial terms but also in psychic terms. It said: ?Less visible than the heated consumerism or western sexual habits changing India, this slow churning may be more profound and, for a country weaned on the virtues of village life, more wrenching.?
It is a profound observation. What, additionally, has rising income done to Indians? This the correspondent dealt in his second and thought-provoking article. It was all very well for India to build its Golden Triangle but its national highways, it said, had become a conduit for the AIDS virus, passed by prostitutes and truckers who pay them and bring home to unsuspecting wives the newest scourge.
India'sentry into the global economy had its bitter side. The national highway project allowed roads to carry more freight than ever before, but said the article wisely, ?some things are better left uncarried?. And it added: ?India'sentry into the global economy over the past 15 years may also be furthering the spread of AIDS. With rising incomes, men have more money for sex; poor women see selling sex as their only access to the new prosperity. Western influences are liberalising Indian sexual mores. In response, cultural protectionists are refusing to allow even the national conversation about AIDS to reflect the changing reality…?
What is significant is the new interest in India, as well as the concern expressed. This in itself is a new development. India is no longer seen as a land of stray cows wandering aimlessly in urban streets and beggar children harassing passing strangers. Perceptions about India are undergoing rapid changes in the western world.
What is intriguing is that little thought to this is being given by the Indian media and even less by social activists. Towards what goal is India moving? Is the impact of globalisation and modernity on Indian society a healthy development? Isn'tthat something worth thinking over? That is something for every political parties to ponder over.