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Has India over-sold itself?

September 26, 2008 13:31 IST

India's external image will have taken a severe beating in recent weeks.

There is the ghastly murder in a Delhi suburb of the chief executive of a company with Italian parentage by angry ex-employees -- an incident made worse by the labour minister speaking out of turn; the uncomprehending street tactics of West Bengal's politicians, which has forced a world-famous car project to take on the dimensions of a moving caravan of parts and machinery; the sustained attacks on a tiny religious minority in several states made possible by the deliberate inaction of the concerned state governments; the massive floods in Bihar and Orissa, with at least one of them caused by human failure; and the risk to life and limb because of the activities of a home-grown terrorist network.

For good measure, there is the latest report of Transparency International, according to which India's corruption score has not only got worse but its ranking has dropped precipitously. Even corruption-prone China now fares much better in the lists.

Nor does it help when the World Bank's estimates of poverty (modified to take in those who live on less than $1.25 per day, measured in purchasing power parity terms) show that 42 per cent of all Indians are below this Plimsoll line.

A global audience that has been fed with reports on a country that has a rapidly growing economy, technological prowess, impressive corporate sector, functioning democracy and strong institutions, has therefore been made conscious of the fact that there is another side to the bright new face that had replaced the old one of a starving India holding out a begging bowl.

India may well have wrested for itself a unique status in the nuclear world (the right to continue with its bomb programme without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and it may seek a place at the global High Table -- not just consultation status whenever the G-8 meets, but a permanent seat in the Security Council.

It is a sign of the increasing global recognition of where India has reached, that most international observers are ready to accept these as legitimate goals for a country with 1.15 billion people. Still, the question must be asked: Has India over-sold itself? Is some caution required in order to make sure that the image that is projected is not out of sync with the reality at home?

The triumphalist mood that is often displayed by a rapidly growing middle class (aided and abetted by chest-thumping protagonists in the media) may not suggest it, but in truth the rest of the world looks at India with greater detachment and therefore with a clear eye, whether it is its infrastructure inadequacies or Jammu & Kashmir. And what it probably sees is a society that is a long way from being accident-free.

This may not provoke a superior sneer when the United States sees its financial centre caught in a whirlpool, when a city like New Orleans is laid waste, and when homeowners are being turfed out in cities and towns across the country -- every country has its problems, and it is only reasonable to expect that a lower-middle income country will have its share. That philosophical conclusion should not, however, prevent urgent action on all the fronts where India has shown to be wanting in recent weeks, whether it is in the level of corruption or the management of the country's rivers.
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