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Sunday, August 12, 2007

There is a new-found vigour about India that sometimes borders on the brash

Home > News > World > Asia India at 60: special report Published: 10 August 2007
Since it cast off colonial rule in August 1947, India has become one of the most powerful nations on earth. But what has it sacrificed along the way? Andrew Buncombe goes in search of the Subcontinent's soul
Not surprisingly, it has been America that has made the most of this liberalisation and become India's dominant trading partner, creating an influence it was not able to lever politically in the previous decades. In both exports and imports, the US is now India's number-one trading partner. While Britain stands in third place, its total trade with India is considerably less than that of the US. Indeed, Britain's largest export to India is scrap metal.
It is not just in terms of trade that the US is proving the dominant influence. In the field of higher education, America long ago eclipsed Britain as the most sought-after destination for undergraduates. Last year US colleges took in 88,000 students and academics, while Britain only managed to secure 20,000. Even Oxford and Cambridge are being forced to compete to attract India's best brains.
At a book launch one recent sweltering evening at the British Council's offices south of Connaught Place, a documentary film-maker who had studied in Britain was bemoaning the fact that her daughter had no interest in following the same path. "She's only interested in going to America," she said. "I'd hoped that she'd want to do the same as me."
The implications of such a shift in the ambitions of smart, young Indians go beyond simply losing the battle to attract the best students to Britain. Students travelling to the US to study, perhaps spending several years there, are inculcated with American culture while they are there. They absorb its politics, its fashions, its tastes, its clothes and music and, of course, its aspirations. They watch its news broadcasts, they listen to Fox News and to CNN. They go shopping at Wal-Mart, or spend time in shopping malls. When they leave they are likely to retain very strong bonds with the country.
"In a nutshell, it's a loss with very long-term consequences," said Frances Cairncross, the rector of Exeter College, Oxford." Students may stay for a while and contribute their skills and intelligence to our economy [and] when they go home, their cultural and economic links are with the country that educated them. So we will feel the repercussions for a generation to come."
THERE is a new-found vigour about India that sometimes borders on the brash. You can positively sense the optimism and confidence that exists within the middle classes and political élite, a feeling that after all these years of waiting – and with the shackles of colonialism having been thrown off – India's time has finally arrived.
You can detect this in numerous ways. You can see it in the world of publishing and television, in the expansion of India as a retail destination. You even sense it when the shop assistants laugh at you when you opt for a cheap mobile phone rather than the $400 model they had selected for you. "That's what the rickshawallahs have," they say.
It is apparent in the swagger of politicians such as Kamal Nath, the country's Minister of Commerce and Industry, who declared earlier this year: "We no longer discuss the future of India. We say: 'The future is India.'" One can detect it in the sense of entitlement that imbued the reporting of the recent "123" nuclear technology deal between India and the US...
Many Westerners, especially those whose view of India has been hazily shaped by holidays that have left an overwhelming impression of India's " spirituality", may be surprised by the readiness of large swathes of the public to adopt this new incarnation so readily.
And yet Indians see no problem. In his seminal book Being Indian, The writer Pavan Varma devotes a chapter to the "myth of otherworldliness". " Indians have deliberately promoted an otherwordly image," he writes. " They've always had a down-to-earth relish for the materialistic world. Far from being disdainful of the temptations of money and wealth, they have consistently given value to these goals."
It is an important lesson. Varma explains there is nothing in Hinduism that ideologically leads a follower to reject the material world for the spiritual. "Contrary to the notion that Indians are 'spiritual', they are really 'material-minded'," he adds. "They are materialists, believing in substance. There is a continuity, a constant flow of substance from context to context, from non-self to self – in eating, breathing, sex, sensation, perception, thought, art or religious experience."

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