India languishes while Indians abroad succeed. Why?

1999

"For a country of a billion people and a nuclear bomb, India does not count for much in the world. Its trade accounts for a scant 0.7% of the world total; it gets about one-tenth the foreign direct investment that China attracts. It has no permanent seat on the Security Council. When pundits talk about the geo-strategic chessboard of the future, India has figured more often as a bishop or knight than as a queen. On this view, India is the world's biggest underachiever".

So says the Economist, the UK-published international magazine, which features Atal Behari Vajpayee on the cover (Economist, September 4th). And that's not all of the ills that India faces. The magazine goes on to list umpteen others, most of which we are familiar with as a living reality rather than the soulless statistics - a third of the population is poor, 40% are illiterate, and so on.

So what has this got to do with us as NRIs? The obvious answer is of course that anything that is said about or affects India affects us. But beyond that?

Well, to answer that, consider this: by and large, Indians do extremely well once they leave India. In material terms, NRIs are very successful, even by their adopted country's standards. This is nothing new to us. But virtually all of us often wonder why Indians do well out of India, but India as a country languishes. Perhaps it is because of the achievements of Indians abroad that the Economist is able to say that India is an underachiever, because how else could it benchmark India's performance in relation to itself? In a sense, this is a compliment because the magazine recognises the country's potential. But fundamentally, what is India's problem?

Here's a theory: India's biggest problem is its mindset. India still views itself as a third world country or less harshly, a "developing" one. Pandit Nehru is allegedly credited with creating the term "third world" and this is, in retrospect, his worst crime. In one stroke, India was labelled "third world" and all its actions stemmed from that attitude. To this day, India sees itself as a third world country, one of the better third world countries maybe, but a third world one nevertheless. Call it developing if you want. It makes little difference. You only have to see the results that have stemmed from this mindset - the dismal picture painted by the Economist.

Compare this "third world" mindset of India with the mindset of NRIs. Within a few months of arriving on foreign shores, most of us are able to drop the somewhat apologetic "I'm from a developing country" attitude when we soon realise that we are able to not only compete with "locals", but win, and win handsomely. It gives us a huge amount of self-belief, and all our future actions are taken with that self-belief.

Contrast that with what happens in India. We are happy being a "developing" country. So if we don't advance quickly enough, it really doesn't matter, blame it on the fact that we are developing. We readily accept situations that a "developed" country would not, regardless of whether we can do more to better our lot.

Here's a more common example - that of the student performing badly, but who is told he is highly intelligent and gifted, and that great things are expected of him. Contrast this with the student who is told that he is "weak" and needs to "improve". Who do you think will be the more highly motivated and will, in the end, perform better? The first one without a doubt. The unshakeable self-belief has already been installed in him, and he expects great things of himself, whatever the obstacles. And his actions will reflect that self-belief, and he will not settle for less in future.

India's problem is not dissimilar. As a country, it sees itself as a developing one. Imagine if this attitude changed overnight. Rather than viewing itself as a third world, developing country, it started viewing itself as a "first world" country that had some "third world" problems. No one is talking about denying reality. But if India changed its self-image, it would take the appropriate actions - quickly - to make sure its many problems were solved. It would take action to make sure that the actions it took matched the reality of its self image. And as a nation, it would no longer readily accept second best.

If this sounds a little far-fetched, just think about yourself. When you set out for foreign shores, did you do so with a self-image of failure? Or did you start out imagining yourself successful, and then did everything in your power, overcoming significant obstacles, until that reality matched your self-image? Do you think you could achieve as much as you have, if you forever thought of yourself as an inferior, third world product? It's only when you decided that you, a foreigner in a strange land, was on par with the locals that you were able to behave - and perform - as the best.

Or think about Japan and Germany. Both countries were razed to the ground in the Second World War. India had a better start than did Germany or Japan. Why are we so far behind them? Because from the beginning of their reconstruction, Germany and Japan viewed themselves as strong, dynamic countries that, having lost their standing in the world, had to regain it from the depths they had plumbed. And India? We didn't have a strong self-image to start with. The colonial legacy left us with a defeatist mindset, Mahatma Gandhi excepted, and far worse, we have accepted our lot as a "developing" nation.

India wasn't always a developing country. As we know only too well, it used to be the one of the greatest countries on earth. But this was centuries ago and not something we can directly relate to as part of our daily experience. Still, once in a way we yell and scream our greatness to world. But then we open our eyes, see some poverty and human suffering, we think to ourselves, of course, that's because we're a developing, third world country. And we lie back and accept that label. We stop screaming our greatness. We stop working to our full potential with the fire of self-belief.

We've got reality the wrong way round. Once developing, forever developing. If any real changes are to be made, we should start by wiping out the labels "third world", "developing", "poor" and other such words from our vocabulary, particularly in government. India will never fulfill its true potential if it sees itself as a third world state trying to become a first world state.

- Chetan Dhruve in London

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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