The hoopla was amazing. In a country as youth-obsessed as the United States, it’s a little surreal to watch the fuss over someone turning 60. Of course, India is not just anyone. In the new world order, India is the next superpower-to-be. At least that’s what America is hoping. As is India. But with the 60th anniversary celebrations behind us, what seems most worthy of note is what was not said.

Not that long ago, India and Pakistan seemed unable to escape the hyphen that stapled them together, especially in the eyes of the West. “Indo-Pak” war, “Indo-Pak” peace moves, “Indo-Pak” tensions, even Pakistani-Indian cuisine. At 60, India seems to have finally shaken off that hyphen. Though both countries gained independence a day apart, worldwide media coverage was not about an India-Pakistan event. Pakistan was definitely the step-sister in this 60-year-old debutante ball. As noted in The Economist in a story about South Asian poverty: “Pakistan’s official birthday precedes India by one day. It had a big show in Islamabad. But it had much less to celebrate.”

During the ongoing civil unrest in Pakistan, from the Lal Masjid attacks to the demonstrations after the sacking of the Chief Justice, the Indian media have seemed careful to point out repeatedly that these are Pakistani issues, not India-Pakistan issues. According to a Hindustan Times editorial, India doesn’t really have a dog in the fight of Pakistan’s civil discontent. India did call for cooperation on anti-terror mechanisms. But as the editorial made clear, “there [was] much more at stake for Pakistan in this move.” If it is to be hyphenated at all, India is much more eager to be hyphenated with China these days. The Economist recently ran a story about the “three Asian giants”—China, Japan, and India.

But the language of breathless excitement also belies some of the realities on the ground. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems somewhat more in touch with the realities than some of the pundits abroad. In his Independence Day message, Singh told the nation, “India cannot become a nation with islands of high growth and vast areas untouched by development, where the benefits of growth accrue only to a few.”

As a New York Times article pointed out, “after 60 years of independence, nearly 30-percent of Indians still live below the official poverty line and close to half of all Indian children under the age of three are malnourished.” The Economist quotes the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector as saying 836 million Indians “live on less than 20 rupees a day, the equivalent of about 50 American cents.”

It’s a reality that’s both overstated and ignored. Many Indians in the diaspora rankle at any mention of poverty in India, as if despite the economic boom, Indians still suffer from the Nargis-complex (actress Nargis Dutt once chided Satyajit Ray for “exporting poverty”).

Yet no figures about the poor and the malnourished can dampen the soaring sense of middle-class optimism in India. It might manifest itself most often in malls and multiplexes, but it is a real can-do optimism that was once associated primarily with the United States. A Washington Post article about Shah Rukh Khan quotes his biographer, Anupama Chopra, who has described the actor’s appeal as “the face of a completely new environment of post-liberalization and growing capitalism in India.”

“[SRK] was a promiscuous brand endorser, yet he was still respected and loved,” writes Chopra. “… India could be both materialistic and retain its history and Indian soul at the same time.”

Sounds like a win-win situation. But it’s not clear whether this “new” India is ready to heed the Prime Minister’s warning: “We must not be overconfident.”

The danger is that just as India once bristled at its representations in the western media, it is just as easy now to be seduced by the “India-Shining” hype that is everywhere from Newsweek to New York Times. The Economist article which clubs India with China and Japan goes on to warn that India may “disappoint,” and despite a rise in foreign direct investment, India “will continue punching below its weight.” Or, as it was put more succinctly in another article, the Asian tiger club includes “magnetic China, difficult India, and uninviting Japan.”

It is indeed an ego boost for India to feel it can step out of its South Asian pond (where it could be the big Brother and dominate the medal tallies at the South Asian Federation games) and play on the world stage. It is even more attractive for the diaspora to feel it might have had some role to play in this new emergence of India—whether by investing in companies in India or pushing for the nuclear deal with the United States.

And India is certainly a very different country from the sleepy one I left almost two decades ago. Nothing hit that home for me more than a conversation I had on my last visit to India. We had hired a driver for the day, whom we paid by the hour. Ridiculously cheap, I thought, as I converted his rates to dollars. As the driver dropped me off at the shopping complex entrance and prepared to drive off to find a parking spot, I wondered how I would find him when I was done.

“Oh, here is my mobile number,” he said. “Why don’t you just call me and I’ll pull up to the front.” I shamefacedly admitted I didn’t have a mobile phone. He looked at me with such a peculiar mix of pity and bewilderment that I almost wanted to explain that I lived in America, and my mobile just didn’t work in India. In the end, I quietly drove with him into the parking lot, saw where he parked the car, and then trudged through the parking lot, on foot, under the baking sun.

There’s a moral in that story somewhere. I’m just not sure whether it says more about me, India, or the United States.

 

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

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