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Humble United States of America, arrogant India
"America is the only country that has gone directly from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation, " is an often-used quote variously attributed to Oscar Wilde and George Clemenceau, among others. Poor America, it is tough being No 1;everyone wants to pick on you. Luckily for America, in terms of taking a bad rap, this situation may not last long. Many cognoscenti have forecast the imminent decline of the United States, so perhaps the world will now cluck in sympathy for a falling, if not a fallen, power.
Contrast that with India, glowing quotations about whom would fill a fat book. Will Durant, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Max Mueller, Romain Rolland and many others had wonderful things to say about India, and if you look hard enough, perhaps you can even dredge up something nice Oscar Wilde said. Oh sure, there is an occasional snarky aside from the likes of Winston Churchill, the odd gutter inspector's report from Katherine Mayo, but the good and positive far outweighs the negative.
However, much of this was for an India gone by, or bygone India. Now that India is said to be moving up the pecking order, expect the knives to come out. When that happens, one of the first things that will probably be said, rightly, is that India went from abject humility to outright arrogance without the usual interval of healthy self-esteem. Puffed-up Indian pride is a staple we poor Washington DC hacks have had for the past decade or so with each Indian ministerial or high bureaucratic visit. Seldom has an Indian minister or official managed to stride across the stage at the US Chamber of Commerce and other talking shops in this constantly nattering national capital without sounding boastful, overweening and utterly immodest about "Incredible" India's "inevitable", and "inexorable" rise. Fewer words starting with "in" might have made us less boastful.
A few quarters of 9 per cent growth we lucked into inflated our self-importance so much that it became insufferable. A few months ago, a senior Cabinet minister told American businesses complaining of stalled reforms to go take a hike (more politely, of course). India, he huffed, rising up to his inconsiderable height, could grow on its own domestic demand and consumption and really didn't need predatory foreign investment.
Sure, he's right. We can get back to growing at our marvellous 3. 5 per cent which was our standard for many years. In fact, we are headed back there, having plunged to 5. 3 per cent in a recent quarter, our flirtation with 9 plus per cent now a fading memory. For their part, Americans - and other foreign investors - are unfailingly polite, egging us on to reforms and suffering our bombast in the hope that somehow we will walk the talk.
But now the game is up. It was all talk and little walk, and we've been found out. All the whining and carping about coalition governments and political gridlock and slowdown in the West is not cutting it, so the knives are out. From "Incredible India", it has gone to scarcely credible India, one analyst wrote recently, even as news magazines and think tanks have gone after the "underachieving" and "overrated" Prime Minister.
But why stick it in to one man, who, his spinmasters assure us, is essentially an honest, if ineffective, individual ? India's leadership problem stretches across the board and into the structure. We have a system that mostly produces "leaders" with narrow self-interest of tending to their voting flock, not problem solvers who can look after entire districts or cities, much less a state or the country. Ever heard your neta, local or national, offer a solution or roadmap an issue, much less execute it?
How badly India has fallen behind is something you realise not when you travel to other first world or developed countries, but to other Third World or developing countries. From deepest South America to darkest Africa, cities and towns are reinventing themselves, attracting investment, raising resources, rousing civil pride, and working at fast clip. The makeover of cities from Quito to Istanbul to every second and third-tier city in China is astounding.
Meanwhile, each of our cities is a blot on the landscape, an embarrassment even by Third World standards now;vast ugly, urban agglomerations without adequate power, water and sanitation, healthcare or public transport. Few cities and states illustrate the pathetic nature of our political and civil leadership than Karnataka, where a rapacious new rabble, with no other purpose than to clean out the state even further, has come to power, joining a brood of criminal local reps who have laid waste to a city that was to be the pride of India.
But hey, don't let anyone on to our deep, dark secret. In the fertile imagination of our bombastic leaders, India is already a superpower - ready to write off America and the rest. An Indian diplomat who worked in Brazil (with a per capita income eight times India's ) recently described that country as a "reluctant global power", a nation that is so self-effacing that it has had to be dragged kicking and screaming on to the world stage. The way we are going, we may end up being dragged off it - kicking and screaming. After all, quiet is not our style.
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