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India is victorious, not a victim
December 24, 2003
Part I: Is India winning or losing?
NRIs are not Indian surrogates
Many Indians and their government blame the NRIs for the negative perceptions India or Indians face abroad or at home.
The recent courtship, by the Government of India, of India's prodigious and prodigal emigrants, many of whom will probably never return to India, is emotionally redemptive and politically lucrative. But, this is not a substitute for what Indians, meaning Resident Indians, and the Indian Government must do.
Whether Indians like it or not, most NRIs are not interested in marketing India. This is not because they are ashamed of their origins (as some Indo-philes frequently claim, using some vague Vedic psychiatry) but because most NRIs are preoccupied with their personal lives and, as they assimilate into new societies, they develop a greater level of interest in advancing the interests of their host nation than the interests of the country of their origin. One can debate whether this is right or wrong, but that is a separate issue. Many NRIs in America are, at heart, more American than Indian, although most may not admit it or even realize it fully.
Scholars are not marketing agents
There are hundreds of reputed academic scholars in the West who study and expound India's history, culture and economy. Some of these scholars are now being attacked unjustly for all the negative perceptions of India. A fanciful notion suggested by some is to deploy rival academic scholars to 'market' a positive image of India.
It is true that most academic research is narrowly focused on exotic topics, which few people read; most of it is backward-looking at historical issues and divorced from current realities. That is not necessarily a fault; that's what the scholars happen to be interested in. Academic research is neither suitable nor intended to 'market' anything, much less a nation of India's complexity, except when it happens by chance.
Academic scholars are likely to recoil, with justifiable horror, at the idea that they are expected to have any predisposition towards the cultures and nations they study. Scholars are supposed to study their subjects without any bias and let the chips fall where they may. Most scholars would, as they should, refuse to accept donations from donors who want to predetermine the result of scholarly studies or who want to 'market' the subject of their study.
'Marketing' a country is not the business of academic scholars. Such Machiavellian ideas of manipulating and co-opting scholars are as unnecessary as they are Quixotic.
Donors and others interested in 'marketing' India should take their money elsewhere: to public relations firms, ad agencies and other commercial organizations which are likely to do a much better job at marketing India or Indians. For sure, they might seed think tanks with ideas and grants, but they will also exploit talk shows, commercials, infomercials, ball games and whatever means will get the message across effectively.
Apologists for Indian failures have found another convenient villain: non-governmental and social organizations that have sprung up spontaneously catering to Indians and other South Asians all over the world. These 'South Asian' organizations are accused of conspiratorial motives and of subverting Indian interests.
'South Asian' organizations welcome people of all South Asian nations because they have moved on to finding common traditions, values and interests among South Asians of all stripes, leaving beyond and going beyond the petty historical squabbles among the subcontinent's scoundrels.
But, some Indo-philes take umbrage at the very term 'South Asian' as if it is a corrupt label. These well-meaning champions are paranoid that any association to Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh will indelibly taint India's imagined impeccable credentials.
Malhotra's rediff article, for example, accuses 'South Asian' organizations in American universities of 'denigrating' the Indian identity of its Indian members. Truth is, most immigrant students joining South Asian (and, sometimes other pan-Asian) campus groups, have no interest in advancing India's interests -- presently or in the future. They join these organizations mostly seeking companionship, networking and resources to deal with university and immigration bureaucracies.
Fortunately, the current Indian leadership appears less paranoid on this matter. Recently, India's prime minister is reported to have discussed a 'South Asian' common currency and open borders among 'South Asian' nations as a possible idea to promote greater cooperation and trade among South Asians. And, Sonia Gandhi is reported to have mooted the idea of a South Asian parliament!
Now, that's is a bold marketing strategy, one based on strengths, not fears.
Success, not brands and labels, markets success
Despite its colonial past and socialist misadventures, India has made many impressive contributions to the rest of the world. From Yoga to the Internet, synonyms for India keep multiplying. Indian values and traditions have managed to permeate into, and find respect among, distant nations and cultures, marketing themselves on their own strengths quite well, in spite of the fact that, sometimes, these have been peddled by charlatans posing as Yogis or offered on the much-maligned Nasdaq.
All this is not surprising. Good ideas and values overcome political and cultural barriers, especially in an interconnected globalizing world. Capitalism triumphed over Communism, through the force of free ideas, not by nuclear war.
Nothing can, for ever, keep India's strengths (or her weaknesses) secret regardless of what scholars write or don't write, regardless of whether they come with South Asian labels or wearing Nehru jackets.
India is victorious, not a victim
If India continues to make rapid progress, we are soon likely to see a swift leap to the other extreme, as happened with Japan, in which scholars in the West and elsewhere compete with one another to paint India as the greatest of all civilizations, of all times, in all galaxies.
John Laxmi (www.johnlaxmi.com), a former investment banker, is an adjunct faculty member at New York University and is a member of the board of directors of the South Asian Journalists Association. The views presented in this article are his own and are not those of SAJA's or NYU's.