By Dr Jay Dubashi
As everyone knows, there are two Indians. There is what is known as Bharat, which is supposed to live in villages – the so-called rural India – and which has not yet been touched by the winds of modernity. And there is the India that lives in towns and cities, the so-called urban India, which is supposed to be modern and shining, the India that is always in the newspapers, often for wrong reasons, and is supposed to be the ultimate destination for most if not all Indians.
But there are also other Indias. There is India as we Indians see it and there is India as foreigners see it. India, as Indians see it, is the country we read about in our newspapers and which we encounter on a daily basis. But there is also an India as seen by foreigners, which figures in foreign media, and which seems to be entirely different from “our” India.
We read, as a daily basis, about riots in one town or another, rapes in colleges and hospitals, deaths due to starvation, and young women and children abducted in broad daylight. We take this all in our stride and have become so inured to it that some of us, particularly the politicians, do not give it a second thought.
But this is not how foreigners see us. You open foreign newspapers and magazines and the stories are always about how well India is doing, not how badly, as was the case earlier, and how the country has changed in the last twenty years since liberalisation, how self-confident and ambitious its young men and women are, and how prosperous the country has become in the last two decades. The two pictures are entirely different, as if we were talking about two different countries. One wonders whether what we read about in foreign media is really about us, and is not some kind of a trick played on us by these clever foreigners.
There was a time, not so long ago, when India hardly featured in the world press. I lived seven years in London immediately after the last war, and though it was a historic juncture for India, for so much happened in the first two or three years after 1945, including, of course, Independence, British newspapers hardly took notice. We had to go all the way to Aldwych in Strand to know what was going on, for that is where India House was located. India simply did not exist or did not count, though at one time it had been a prized jewel in the crown. When Jawaharlal Nehru came to London for the first Commonwealth Conference, his visit was totally ignored.
This continued for a long time, almost half a century, until the economy was liberalised in 1991. For some reason, this seems to have changed the picture entirely, as the economy picked up, and so did India’s place in the world. Before the changeover, serious magazines like the Economist rarely mentioned India. Even newspapers like New York Times and magazines like Time ignored India except for some exotic stories now and then.
Now there is no issue of the Economist without a story or two on India, and that is also the case with New York Times and Time. This week Time has two big stories on or about india, with a cover story on an India-born attorney named Preet Bharara who is hunting crooks on the Wall Street. In the same issue, there is a long story how liberalisation has changed the lives of three Indians and how they are reacting to changes taking place in the country. These are all positive stories, told by reporters in highly positive terms, which was not the case earlier.
India has ceased to be, at least in foreign eyes, the starving country we used to be, going about with a begging bowl, salaaming every Westerner for a few dollars here and some crude oil there. This is why the Britishers, who have never come to terms with India’s Independence, still see us as beggars and want to force “aid” on us, though we are doing much better than them, and can afford to drop some millions in their jholi.
The Economist is a serious newspaper and so is New York Times, whatever their politics. The Economist has a circulation of a million copies every week, an unusual number for a paper of that kind. That is also the case with New York Times and Time. You see them everywhere from Tokyo in Japan to Washington in the US, and almost every important office in the world. When I first met Nehru in Delhi on my return from London in 1952, I found him going through Time. I used to write for it at one time, and whenever I visited government offices abroad, I used to be received not as a reporter, but as an ambassador, with half dozen people escorting me from the entrance.
The Economist carries at least one big political story on India and one or two business stories, almost all of them by the magazine’s reporters in India where it has an editorial office. They are almost always written in a positive light, and also in a respectful tone, the kind Western newspapers reserve for stories about America, and now, China. And because the stories are written mostly by foreigners and for a foreign readership, they always have a foreign angle, though they are almost always sympathetic to India, and—this is unusual—Indians.
Increasingly, it is from foreign media that we have learnt what a great distance India has travelled in the last twenty years. Foreigners apparently notice things we don’t. It was the Economist which first reported that Tatas had become the largest industrial employers in Britain, not a small achievement. Also, that India was investing heavily in Africa – something we do not know much about – and also in some former Soviet republics. India has been able to establish a far closer relationship with the US than we have been told about, though we do not know the details. If you read these foreign newspapers, you would not think of India just as a medium-sized Asian country. We are apparently on the threshold of rising to great heights as a country, something our own newspapers and magazines have never told us, possibly because they themselves are totally in the dark about it.
Is this just a pose – after all, India is a big market for foreign goods and you should always be on the right side of your customers – or has the foreign media at last taken notice of the big changes that have come over India, and which they simply cannot afford to ignore? It’s a big question to which the answer is that we just don’t know. But my feeling is that foreigners have begun to take notice of India, and, of course, China, because they just cannot afford to ignore us. India is a coming power, in every sense of the word, and will one day replace today’s powers like America and Japan. But if they cannot afford to ignore us, we also cannot afford to ignore them. It is after all a small world, and we have to live in it together. And great powers can only live together if they consider each other as equals.