A foreign complex

In democratic politics, what matters is what the electorate thinks, not how foreign governments perceive mass politics

There is something unique and peculiar, my casual observations tell me, about many immigrants to the West from India: they are very easily intimidated by their children. The children, who were either born or grew up in the West, speak English as the locals do, share the social assumptions of their school friends and neighbours, and have only the haziest appreciation of what their parents are all about. There are times when the mismatch of the generations provokes clashes and triggers domestic unhappiness.
However, apart from Muslim communities where social attitudes are more rigidly imposed, most middle class and professional Indians prefer the line of least resistance. They swallow their pride, keep aside their own sense of right and wrong and wilt before their culturally different children.

The reason, I believe, is a profound sense of cultural and linguistic inadequacy. Having uprooted themselves from India for the sake of better opportunities in the West, they can hardly contend that Western money is good but Western social attitudes are dubious and to be kept away from home.
This sense of awkwardness is further reinforced by the natural fluency of their children in the local tongue. Coupled with the fact that most Indian migration to the West took place from the early-1960s to the early-1990s, the decades of shortages and stagnation when the country’s self-esteem was at an all-time low, it is possible to comprehend the mental submissiveness of Indians of a particular generation.
The generation that struggled for Independence had an exaggerated sense of national pride based on the belief that a free India will realise its own potential and make it big in the world. Tragically, the post-Independence euphoria turned into a bad dream by the time China deflated our national pride in the 1962 War. Consequently, for those in search of opportunities, India became a great place to get out of. The brain-drain that greeted India till the beginning of the liberalisation process was also a movement of a defeated people.
It was that gloom that easily translated into cultural submissiveness, a sense of linguistic inferiority and the belief that the West was the ultimate certifying authority for everything, from aesthetics to politics.
It is understandable that many of Jawaharlal Nehru’s actions were governed by what he perceived was enlightened Western opinion. When the restored Somnath temple was re-opened for worship in 1951 by President Rajendra Prasad, Nehru was incensed. “Our frequent declarations that we are a secular state are appreciated abroad and raise our credit. But they are not wholly believed in… The recent inauguration of the Somnath temple, with pomp and ceremony, has created a very bad impression abroad about India…”
Why a colourful Hindu ceremony should create a “bad impression” anywhere except in Nehru’s mind was never made clear.
But this ingrained sense of inadequacy has been a part of the Indian mind and explains the desire to second-guess what the West may be thinking about India. Those Indian parents bullied by their progeny on account of their superior understanding of the West personified this larger trend.
This unending search for testimonials has been a hallmark of political behaviour of nearly all the parties. The Hindu nationalists were no exceptions, despite their professed belief in the superiority of India over everyone else. In 2004, shortly after the general election produced the first UPA government, the then Leader of Opposition, L.K. Advani, flaunted a Deutsche Bank report that suggested that the life of the Manmohan Singh government would be short-lived. The underlying absurdity of a former deputy Prime Minister of India trusting an assessment simply because it had a foreign stamp was lost sight of.
That foreign observers, and not least American diplomats, whose cables have come into public view courtesy WikiLeaks, have no exceptional insights into Indian politics is well known to most people who have dealt with them. Indeed, the labyrinthine complexities of Indian democracy leave most foreigners bewildered.
The search for simple answers and sheer gullibility, for example, was responsible for the United States denying Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi a visa in 2005. The administration relied excessively on inputs from NGOs and other bodies that were by no means disinterested upholders of the good. The visa denial involved the US needlessly in an Indian domestic battle.
It is ironical that Mr Modi fell back on a US Congressional Research Report praising Gujarat’s sustained economic process to point a victory of Garavi Gujarat. Mr Advani, too, cited it as a testimonial of good governance and robust leadership in Gujarat.
The report was, at best, an assessment of how Indian politics was likely to unfold in the coming months. It was based on media reports and cannot be said to have provided original insights.
Yet, merely because it was issued under a foreign letterhead, it became a subject of intense discussion. Mr Modi, in particular, should have kept distance from such testimonials because another US body is almost
certain to issue a damaging report, just to restore the diplomatic balance.
Foreign testimonials are double-edged swords. In democratic politics, what really matters is what the electorate thinks, not how foreign governments perceive mass politics. Economics is a different ball game altogether.
Economically, India, despite persisting inefficiencies, is much more vibrant than at any point since the mid-18th century.
Unfortunately, the mentality of a defeated nation remains with us both inside the home and in public life.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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