India Eyes Riches at Poor's Expense
The media and business are buzzing about the nation's successes,
but poverty is all around
Delhi : For the New Year's Day edition, the editor of the Times of
India, the country's most popular English-language newspaper, decided
to try something new. He stripped all the news articles from the front
page and launched a defiantly patriotic campaign with the logo 'India
It was a call to arms. India, the paper announced, was 'on the brink
of global success' and it was up to readers to seize the moment and
build their country into a superpower.
Posters declaring 'Our Time Is Now' were pasted up throughout the
capital. The paper hired India's best-loved Bollywood star, Amitabh
Bachchan, to promote the message through a series of television advertisements,
proclaiming in his growly baritone that 'quietly, while the world
is not looking, a pulsating, dynamic new India is emerging', an 'India
which is looking up at the sky and saying: "It's time to fly".'
Abandoning any false modesty, the newspaper has homed in on a rising
sense of euphoria about India's rapidly transforming economy and its
growing clout on the international stage.
With investment banks predicting that India will become the world's
third largest economy within two decades and a CIA report forecasting
that the 21st century will be India's, this national self-confidence
is spreading fast. 'We no longer discuss the future of India. We say:
"The future is India",' Trade Minister Kamal Nath likes to remark.
Last week such triumphalist excitement was on display in abundance
with the news that the Mumbai-based Tata Group had bought out the
Anglo-Dutch Corus Group (which comprises what used to be British Steel)
with a $12.2bn bid - the largest foreign takeover ever accomplished
by an Indian company.
Beneath the headline 'Empire Strikes Back', one paper reminded readers
that British colonial administrators had repeatedly tried to stifle
the growth of the Tata family business in the early 20th century.
'Corus, the erstwhile British Steel and one of the icons of Her Majesty's
Empire will now fly the [Indian] Tricolour,' the paper said. 'It's
the first step towards what we call the Global Indian Takeover,' a
front-page headline promised.
Travel a few miles outside the bubble of prosperity in Delhi or the
financial capital, Mumbai, and this superpower mania can seem bewildering.
Beyond the sleek glass-tower blocks that house call-centre offices
on the outskirts of the city, and the extravagant, Florida-style apartment
complexes (titled with imaginative dishonesty 'Bayview Heights' or
'Heritage Luxury'), the new India suddenly disappears.
Instead there is a vision of a more troubled India, where around 700
million people scratch a living out of agriculture and some 300 million
battle to survive beneath the poverty line. Horse-drawn carts dodge
trucks as they drive the wrong way down the national highway, overloaded
with leaking sacks of grain. Visibly weak infant children break stones
in the central reservation, helping to repair the road surface.
Health Minister Ambumani Ramadoss highlighted these paradoxes in a
speech he made recently: 'India is on its way to becoming a superpower,
but unfortunately 50 to 60 per cent of children under three years
are undernourished,' he said. 'We have the IT revolution, but then
we have this pitiful infant mortality.'
The two most powerful people in India's government are at pains (at
least in public) to restrain the national surge of triumphalism. Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh recently highlighted the inherent tastelessness
in harping on about the country's glorious economic destiny at a time
when such a large portion of the population continued to be excluded
from the benefits of growth. Singh urged his listeners to remember
the 'vast segments of our people who are untouched by modernisation;
who continue to do backbreaking labour,' and, with characteristic
honesty, listed the countless obstacles standing in the way of enduring
economic success - illiteracy, failing healthcare, lagging education
systems, crumbling infrastructure, hunger, poverty.
His words were echoed by the leader of the ruling Congress party,
Sonia Gandhi, who warned against the prevailing 'superpower obsession',
emphasising that while India had become a country of 'dazzling prosperity'
it still remained a nation of 'dehumanising poverty'.
Both leaders have a vested political interest in avoiding the spirit
of self-congratulation which surrounds them; appearing to be sensitive
to the needs of those excluded from the country's financial boom is
a vital part of their electoral strategy.
But the words of these leaders have done little to quell the simmering
excitement in the media and the business community. Indians already
view themselves as the second most powerful nation in the world behind
the United States, according to a study by the Chicago Council on
Foreign Affairs, and among international leaders there is no doubt
about India's soaring global stature.
India's indispensability to the US was displayed last year with the
sealing of a ground-breaking civilian nuclear pact. Last month the
Chancellor, Gordon Brown, came with a contingent of 150 senior business
people from the UK to display Britain's own desire to expand trade
ties with India (although his message was drowned in the far noisier
debate over whether comments made on Celebrity Big Brother represented
lingering racist attitudes in Britain towards India.) There have also
been visits by trade delegations from China and Russia, eager to capture
As part of its campaign, the Times of India has nominated 2007 as
the 'Year of India' and its columnists have no patience for doubters.
With customary self-assurance, a recent editorial explained: 'Combine
our new-found economic and political clout with our increasingly influential
diaspora and our status as a global soft power or superwower (from
Bollywood and Indian art to yoga and spirituality), and Brand India
is on a roll like never before.'
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