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Does India like or loathe foreigners?
February 25, 2006
In the shoppers' mecca of Colaba in Mumbai last week, I spotted T shirts on sale with the slogan: "Come to India. A Billion People Can't Be Wrong." A perfect take-home present for foreigners floating down the thoroughfare.
Yet, when foreigners decide to test the waters, India isn't sure how sincerely the invitation was meant.
Take the recent case of a dozen or so foreign models, among 250 Indian aspirants, who turned up in Delhi to audition for new faces being sought for India Fashion Week in April.
The jury split down the middle on whether foreigners should be permitted on Indian ramps or not. After some debate four out of 64 models finally chosen were, indeed, foreign--but not without much tub-thumping.
The supreme irony is that the selectors were procrastinating at the precise moment when many Indians, including the government of India, seemed mortified over Lakshmi Mittal's attempted takeover of Arcelor in Europe.
Here is a tycoon who, for all his waving of the Indian tricolour, hasn't invested a naya paisa in Indian industry, yet manages to whip up sentiment--including charges of racism--when Arcelor fears cutbacks and job losses by his takeover.
Weren't those the kind of doubts that India Fashion Week selectors harboured when they expressed the idea of keeping foreigners off the ramp? Their hypocrisy, of course, was more blatant because not only are Indian fashionistas--designers and models--the darlings of fashion weeks round the world but some of Indian advertising's most prized faces, Yana Gupta for example, are foreign.
So does colour, like size, matter, and are Indians xenophobic? It does and they are. Indians like and loathe foreigners at the same time, they need them but fear them. And they can get as squeamish, or racist, about takeovers as Arcelor in Luxembourg.
Of course, foreign food, foreign films and stars, fashion brands and models and TV channels are just some of the things that Indians devour with increasing hunger. They are the diverting and delicious spin-offs of globalisation. Desperately-needed foreign capital--FDI--is relentlessly wooed.
When organisations like the CII decide to sell India abroad, they light up the snowy slopes of Davos like a reckless Diwali bash. "India Everywhere", this year's slogan at Davos, like the T shirt squirt, is a visual ring tone. But can the slogan be put into practice without foreigners demanding a piece of the pie?
Ideologically too, the positions are riddled with double standards across the political spectrum. The Indian left accepts Indian capitalism but refuses to countenance FDI in sectors such as retail. Is it protectionism, union-baazi or plain colour prejudice that drives their argument? If Indian capital is okay, why is foreign capital tainted?
Foreign money, as the left sees it, has colour. Stripped of jargon, the argument is frankly xenophobic. Indian communists only like some like-minded foreigners--the Chinese or Venezuelans.
The view of the Indian far right, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and its ilk, is more extreme. It views all foreign capital and foreign culture as a deadly disease, a double-headed virus out to infect and poison the purity of the Hindutva bloodstream.
Depending on which side you're coming from, words like "imperialism" and "nationalism" have entirely different meanings. Middle India, for all its yearnings to move forward, is essentially conservative. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it cannot decide between the promise of the CII and T shirt slogans and the reality that may follow.
Foreign tourists? Yes. Foreign money to pump up the stockmarket? Of course. But a big no to foreigners competing for Indian jobs or an excess of foreign habits such as all-night discos or sex on the screen.The slogan on the Colaba T shirts should be changed. It should read: "Come to India. A Billion Indians Have Their Seats Reserved."
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