I am traveling through Bombay, and can’t help share a few observations. This teeming, bustling city, despite its bad traffic, pollution (although it is nothing compared to Hong Kong or Beijing), and other not-yet-a-middle-income-country constraints, is a study in the addictive energy of an emerging power. Everywhere one sees signs of growth—more jobs being advertised, more malls being built, more cars on the road, more opportunities and excitements bubbling away—one can even feel it in the air (literally tonight, as the night sky is lit with the fireworks of the Diwali festival). The newspapers are replete with stories about salaries climbing higher, new mega building projects (mostly private) on the cards, and about societal tensions that invariably come with dizzying growth. What an intoxicating time to be in this part of the world!
Another sign of India’s growing stature is one that is at once interesting and foreboding. Even 10-15 years ago a visitor from the West to South Asia would be invariably faced with numerous questions about life in the First World, with eager, wide eyed students wanting tips for going to the Europe or the U.S. for higher education. No ones asks such questions anymore; there are plenty of opportunities at home, and hence why bother look Westward when everything that matters is going on here. This is by all means a good development, but unfortunately this has also come with an increasingly inward looking mentality. Indians, emboldened by their economic might, seem to care only about themselves. The daily newspapers that run 40-50 pages seldom devote more than a couple of pages to world affairs. Sitting here, Iraq is a paragraph, North Korea is a footnote, and the plights of those in Darfur or West Bank are simply invisible. Instead, Indians chew on their domestic issues (admittedly, there are many, many of those). The TV channels debate malfeasance of Indian politicians (Abrahamoff and Folley, who are they??), Indian terrorism (should the guilty in the Parliament attack case be hanged?), and Indian clash of cultures (caste questions continue to bedevil politics and society; Islamic law’s role in the jurisprudence is increasingly debated). Questions like what’s happening to the Republicans and Bush, what’s in store for Blair and Brown, are distant, irrelevant, and unfashionable.
I am happy that Indians are busy with themselves, but I fear that India is not preparing well to fit in its increasingly larger boots. By considering outside developments unimportant, India risks becoming a more insensitive neighbor, a shy player in world affairs, a people not willing to learn from others and not interested in helping others, and at its worst—an arrogant bully aware of its weight but uncaring of its impact. When I see A 50-page daily paper devote not a single inch to developments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Nepal (all four neighboring countries had newsworthy items today), or for that matter hardly any coverage of East Asia or the Middle-East, I worry about India’s sense of its neighborhood. When I see 80 channels on the Indian cable TV lineup, a dozen of which are news-related, and still can’t find out after three hours of viewing what happened in Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iran, or Ecuador today, I feel a bit uncomfortable. As Indians earn more, enjoy more, and gain power to influence more, I want them to open their eyes to the world around them, not only as market places where they can make a buck (they have already been doing that), but as societies and cultures which they can help, as well as learn and benefit from.
P.S. One place Indians remain worldly is sports. I can’t think of any other place in the world where one can watch as much live cricket, tennis, Formula One, NFL, NBA, European and Premier League Soccer as in India. Just got back from a lovely evening at the Cricket Club on India where Sri Lanka handily beat New Zealand. Now if I could only find out what’s happening at the political front in either countries!