By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week there was a flutter over an advert put up by a famous ice cream brand. A promo at its first Indian outlet proclaimed that access was "restricted only to holders of international passports." Predictably, people read "international passports" as code for 'foreigners only'.
A significant feature of the controversy was the sharply contrasting responses. If there was all-round outrage in blogosphere, it was offset by the attempt of many advertising professionals to insist it was a needless fuss. Indians, it was suggested by some pundits on TV, were, as usual, being hyper and the advertiser could at best be accused of clumsy prose.
The inept bid to distinguish between passport-holders and natives may have come a cropper, with the company issuing grudging words of regret. Yet, this little storm indicated the growing importance of a pre-existing national malaise: The desire to appear 'reasonable' to the foreigner.
In the bad old days of socialism and shortages when India led a proverbial "ship to mouth" existence, the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon practised an inverse snobbery centred on preachiness and prickliness — recall their pious sermons belittling "colonial attitudes" and "imperialism". The two, cast in the mould of upper-class English radicals, were particularly repelled by brash and insular Americans who imagined they owned the world. This revulsion was reflected in India's foreign policy, its anti-capitalist rhetoric and a culture of spurious austerity, which, naturally, never cramped the style of those who determined the public good.
Unlike China, where the disdain for "foreign devils" was indiscriminate, India's socialist xenophobia held some foreigners to be more equal than others. The India chapter of Vasili Mitrokhin's selections from the secret KGB archives in Moscow reveal the incredible extent to which decision-making in Indira Gandhi's India was manipulated and subverted. The lure of the socialist bloc was so compelling that the KGB even had to confront the problem of over-supply: There were just too many cabinet ministers willing to sing its tune for a holiday on the Black Sea.
Ideally, India's slow realization of its own potential should have led to a more even-handed approach to the world. Tragically, the ability to prosper in a globalized world has produced its own distortions. The standoffishness of the Nehruvian era was based on a perverse celebration of the daridra narayan principle. It was always unviable in an age of entrepreneurship. It had to go. But it's been replaced by an unwarranted degree of cravenness that involves putting national sensitivities and, at times, national interests, on the negotiating table.
In principle, there is some merit in allowing expediency to subsume taste. It never made sense and still doesn't make sense to let an aesthetic rejection of the American way of life dictate foreign policy. Over the centuries — thanks in no small measure to the colonial encounter — India and the West have acquired a familiarity, which can be leveraged for mutual gain now that India is on the cusp of an economic breakthrough. However, the extent to which a previously unequal relationship can be upturned for a more balanced approach depends on the ability to not be taken for granted.
China has turned this into a fine art. Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to be unflinching in upholding what it regards as its national interests and honour. This has included the ability to respond to perceived slights and transgressions over Tibet, Taiwan and text books with characteristic Middle Kingdom arrogance. China has leveraged its huge domestic market, its labour productivity and its awesome trade surplus to redefine its standing in the world. The West doesn't want to muck about with China. In India, unfortunately, an ice cream vendor can make apartheid a marketing gimmick and a pen manufacturer can merchandise Mahatma Gandhi.
India has sold itself too cheaply. It is said that one meeting with President Sarkozy before reaching Copenhagen persuaded the Ethiopian prime minister to scale down the developing nations' demand for $400 billion of Climate Change financing to a mere $100 billion. We don't know what meeting or which persuasive arguments propelled Jairam Ramesh to say one thing to Parliament and another thing outside. We can only speculate over the meaning of a White House note patting Barack Obama on the back for persuading India to quantify its emission cuts. And we can ask whether "flexibility" involves laying all your cards on the table knowing there is always pressure to concede more in the final round of bidding.
India appears to have been overwhelmed by a fear of being a "deal-breaker". But unless a country has the self-confidence to bare its fangs judiciously, it will never be a "deal-maker."Sunday Times, December 20, 2009