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India's Smart Power in the US

January 19, 2011 19:59 IST
As India's involvement in the growth of the US deepens, the search for the soul of India gains momentum, says T P Sreenivasan.

Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World may well be in the making as the East rises and the West declines. But New York is still vibrant and lively, majestic and magical. It has not lost its colour and noise, its variety and verve. Kishore Mahbubani's (the leading thinker on Asian and world affairs and professor at the National University of Singapore) comment that going from New York to New Delhi is like going from a funeral to a wedding seems to be an overstatement.

President Obama may have brought business deals and jobs from India, but what is in evidence everywhere is the Indian smart power. It is palpable not only in the traditional 'Little Indias' in different cities, but in mainstream newspapers, Ivy League universities, and the boardrooms of American companies. Most news channels have Indian anchors and most newspapers have Indian bylines. Indian authors, who write on India, get bought by major publishing houses.

Travel in the US in winter is hazardous even in the best of times. We missed flights, stayed indoors for three days as a snow storm consumed Manhattan and sprinted across five concourses at Atlanta airport to make it to the departure gate at midnight when the monorail came to a grinding halt.

The mayor of New York was taken to task for not cleaning up the roads on time. The snow played havoc with the subway system and yellow cabs disappeared from the streets when they were wanted most. But New York seemed to have recovered from the worst of its recession woes.

India is very much a part of the recovery of the US. The gifts that President Obama brought back from India do not tell the whole story.

New York is a happening place whether it is frozen cold or steaming hot. A peep into the control room of a CNN live show, featuring the media star Anderson Cooper, is enough to know the zest that goes into television production here. In the electronic maze of the control room are multiple men and women glued to television and computer screens, performing specialised functions which a single individual may be required to do in an Indian studio.

Cooper has about 40 people working for him in his production team -- this is for a single, nightly one-hour show. But his stardom does not keep Cooper from being as charming in personal conversations as he is on camera. He recalled his visits to India and said that India was an exciting place to cover. It was nice to see the walls and screens of the CNN office feature its Indian stars, Fareed Zakaria and Dr Sanjay Gupta.

Stars aren't just on television in America; the best chefs are celebrities, too. Manhattan's proud Indian fusion restaurant, Tabla, with its legendary Goan chef, Floyd Cardoz, closed its doors at the end of 2010. Its innovative Indian cuisine had held New Yorkers spellbound for ten years. But the owners of the restaurant found it harder after the recession to fill its massive dining rooms night after night. But I am sure Cardoz will not be wasted in the city that loves its Indian haute cuisine.

An equally resplendent, expensive Indian restaurant, Junoon, has opened its doors just around the corner from where Tabla thrived. Vikas Khanna, a young chef from Amritsar, who began cooking at the age of eleven, has become the talk of the town.

The owner of Junoon, Rajesh Bhardwaj, originally from the Taj group, whose Cafe Spice chain is popular with New Yorkers, seemed confident that the US economy was on its way to full recovery and invested in a first-class gourmet place for Indian food. And just last week, Chef Hemant Mathur, part of the widely-acclaimed Devi with Suvir Saran, has opened another high-end Indian eatery, Tulsi.

Talking of the Taj group and the Tatas, it was an experience to walk into the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, the place I spent my first day in New York back in 1979, then famous for having been Nixon's campaign headquarters.

Today, it is a Taj establishment with special Indian decor in many suites. Anand Giridharadas of The New York Times launched his India Calling, An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking at the hotel's Rajput suite. His launching his book at a Tata enterprise in New York in the presence of his parents had its own story to tell. His father had left a Tata establishment many years ago in pursuit of the American dream, but now Tatas had become part of the American dream, the story that Giridharadas tells in his book in his own inimitable way.

Giridharadas tells the familiar story of the Indian miracle from the point of a returning native to whom India is an enigma wrapped up in mystery. But the style is refreshing and his keen eye for detail makes it enthralling reading. Living in India and reporting on a country he had to understand first and analyse it for the West, makes his book a must-read.

But like any number of foreign correspondents, Giridharadas spends too much time pondering over India's contradictions than its promises. He uses the technique of comparing what he heard about three generations of Giridharidases to the real people who met in India to explore modern India's dreams, ambition, pride, anger and love. The fault of this methodology is evident, but the book is an intimate account of his encounters.

The growth of literature on India by Indian and American authors, which began in earnest at the turn of the century, continues steadily. US bookstores are filled with new fiction and nonfiction about India and about other topics by Indians. They include familiar names -- Salman Rushdie (Luka and the Fire of Life), William Dalrymple (Nine Lives), Parag Khanna (How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance) -- as well as newcomers: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Secret Daughter).

Meanwhile, presiding over the entire US publishing industry is its most powerful editor and impresario, Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Alfred A Knopf. While I was there, the news came that Mehta, the man who had earlier bought Bill Clinton's memoirs for $10 million and Pope John Paul II's for $8.5 million, has also clinched a deal with Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame.

One of the books that Mehta personally championed last year, Cutting for Stone by Dr Abraham Verghese, has been on the NYT bestseller list for 50 straight weeks. Mehta is the son of Ambassador Amrik Mehta, one of my predecessors in Vienna.

Business with India is very much on the minds even of immigration officers. Among the intriguing questions that an immigration agent of Thai origin asked me on my arrival in Atlanta from a short trip to Montego Bay was whether India was purchasing defence equipment from Atlanta.

While the other members of the family moved past the immigration with ease, the immigration officer suddenly got interested in a bundle of five diplomatic passports I passed to him as the US visa was on the oldest one. He began examining every page, reading out the names of countries I had visited in the last 10 years.

Then he began asking me political questions, which were of no relevance to my visit to the US. "Why did India accept Partition?" he asked with the curiosity of a research scholar. I was not in a mood to recount the history of the subcontinent and mumbled something about the colonial legacy.

Then came the interesting question about purchase of military aircraft. Apparently, he was referring to F-16s, which Lockheed Martin manufactures in Atlanta. He also asked about my views on China! My mind was more on my connecting flight I was sure to miss than on the future of China. I was relieved to see him stamping my passport.

An American friend saw a pattern of harassment of Indian diplomats in the questioning of the immigration official, having heard recently about the experiences of other diplomats. Perhaps, the days of diplomats breezing through immigration and customs lines are over in the US.

Reports that certain countries might be issuing diplomatic passports at a price must have alerted the Americans to the danger of terrorists masquerading as diplomats. But the question on F-16s lingered in my mind.

I am not sure if there are Indians building F-16s, but Indians continue to play a major role in US business. Two of the most powerful CEOs in New York are Pepsico's Indira Nooyi (named by Fortune magazine for the fifth year in a row to the top of its '50 most powerful women' list) and Vikram Pandit of Citigroup (who has successfully brought the bank back from the depths of the economic meltdown), not to speak of many other Indian business wizards at different levels in hundreds of US firms.

As India's involvement in the growth of the US deepens, the search for the soul of India gains momentum. India's smart power gets projected in the US in very many ways. The effort of Indian public diplomacy in the US should be to accentuate the positive elements.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here

T P Sreenivasan