IN September, as Sania Mirza lobbed and volleyed her way into the fourth round of the US Open, a somewhat enthusiastic journalist in Delhi wrote the Indian tennis player's popularity in New York now matched that of the Williams sisters. The assertion was obviously untrue; in fact, it was plain rubbish.thing about that line rang familiar. Wasn't it typical of the soap operatic bubble contemporary India seems to live in? A hyped self-perception is just so common in the media, in public discourse–or TV chat shows, which is how we describe public discourse in India–and in everyday conversation.
No nation or society that is genuinely important to the planet and has great power aspirations rooted in solid reality is so sold on certificates from overseas. These are keenly sought, often bought–as in the case of the legions of foreign cricket pundits who routinely land up in India, lavishing praise on Indian cricket simply because it pays for their supper.
In some cases–such as Sania’s alleged celebrity in New York–the certificates are plain manufactured. Superpower in the making? Er, never mind, we can always be a superpower in the faking.
There are three particularly jarring notes in India’s jugalbandi with the world. First, it is influenced by an ingrained inferiority complex. Thus Delhi's Yamuna must be cleaned not because effluents have reduced it to a swamp, but because, as a court ruling said recently, it must be like “London’s Thames”. Likewise Mumbai, clogged traffic lines and more clogged drains notwithstanding, must be “another Shanghai”.
Second, Indians seem more concerned with what others say than what India needs to do. Earlier this year, India puffed its collective chest because three countries–Japan, China and Big Daddy America–offered it “strategic partnerships”. The United States of America even said it was “committed” to making India a great power.
Superpower in the making? Er, never mind, we can always be a superpower in the faking. Gee, the Yanks must know something we do not, Indians decided, and dined out on that one sentence for the rest of the year.
So overwhelming is the focus on the baubles and symbols that it comes in the way of the nuts and bolts, the hard work we have to do. Op-ed writers in New York may compare India to China and satisfy our egos, but surely they will stop if we slow down on economic reform, if we don’t build roads fast enough, if we don’t generate enough power to eclipse nightly blackouts, if our airports are as crowded as bus stations on any business morning?
It’s time for tough decisions. Ah, later, later; right now let’s read Tom Friedman’s new book and congratulate each other.
Finally, for all the talk of globalisation, India is a strangely insular place. It lives, parties, applauds itself in a self-contained universe, its potential loyally commended at CII seminars, its every action diligently reported by a fawning domestic media that refuses to know better.
Take random examples. Every summer, if you believe Indian television channels and magazines, the Hindujas throw a party for visiting Hindi film stars and I&B Ministry officials at Cannes. This is the event. The rest of the world’s film festival is an add-on.
In our assessment of Indians overseas, we go completely over the top. Thus Shekhar Kapur is one of the world’s leading filmmakers even if Elizabeth was–let’s face it–a pretty bad movie, Ritu Beri is a fashion icon in Paris, and the election of a third generation migrant to the local school council in Smallsville, Tennessee, an event to be relished on the diaspora pages.
Come on India, let us grow up.