September - 2007 issue > Cover Feature
India: On the road to superpower
By Vic Kulkarni
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Many economists predict that China and India will be the next superpowers by 2045. But will the world give India and its culture the respect due to a superpower, as well as recognition of its economic prowess? What position in the cultural, ethical, and economic spheres will India take in the panoply of nations? What will other developing nations find in us to emulate?

Currently, one can diagnose negative perceptions about U.S., the present superpower, around the world. Some are due to participation in successive wars; lost credibility; waning manufacturing leadership; and perhaps immigration restrictions that fly in the face of what America, a country of immigrants, used to stand for. China is the manufacturing hub of the world and many of the daily routine products of a U.S. household are manufactured in China. There may be a growing backlash, however, against Chinese products due to quality issues. And certainly intellectual property rights and ownership ethics have been a problem in China.

India has the chance now to leverage on these changed equations and be a respected superpower by playing its cards carefully.

What are some of the barriers and risks as India takes its leadership position? True leadership may require cultural evolution. First, the discipline of planning and responsibility. Thirty years ago, as I lived in India before leaving for the U.S., I was accustomed to the Indian way of functioning, also known as ‘chalta hai mentality’. It is both a reaction to the traditional realities of life in India, and a mind-numbing virus that is still existent in the Indian corporate body.

With unreliable infrastructure, such as electricity service, and widely varying standards of hygiene in public places – the attitude certainly proclaims: ‘chalta hai’.

Second, there is the issue of equality among all peoples, castes, and beyond. For example, service standards are different for different people in India, directly proportional to their economic standing in society. In the U.S. (or, for that matter in Japan) service standards are structured in such a manner that there is a common denominator in service whether one is a blue collar employee or a millionaire.

The roots of this may include the large gap between classes that continues in India, the traditional caste system, and also when the British created the ‘Lord and Saab’ rule in India, which kept the larger population in servitude of the so-called masters. Hence the servility symptom in India to those in the upper echelons of corporate hierarchy is a manifestation of the Victorian rule. It would have been better if the European love for discipline was absorbed by the then Indian populace and passed onto future generations.

India’s societal pride is swelling currently due to the raging economical prowess. However, apart from the shining “India Inc” there is the “Other India” which can act as a flywheel retarding this acceleration. Technology could possibly be the savior here, as a great equalizer bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots. The have-nots need not be in the perpetual shadow of the more fortunate. A case in example is the ubiquitous cell phone which has connected the nation like never before. No bribes, no waiting for land lines to be installed: democratic access to technology, through technology.

Technology comes to the rescue of education too, a single teacher can reach out through videoconferencing, on an average, to 400-500 students simultaneously anywhere in the country. This is an answer to the perpetual problem of shortage of teachers in India. Prosperity hence need not be limited to the metros only. Another tangent of development which comes as a result is distributed cities, wherein people need not come to the crowded metropolises of India in search of jobs and a better life. Multiple choices are now available in the rural areas as well. In addition, the advent of widespread computing hardware and software within the government allows better tracking of income and taxation. This will, over time, will contribute to eliminating the well-known “grey money” cultural issues.

For chances of a better India to germinate and spread across the country, India entrepreneurs, government, and citizens today must make sure that they are contributing more than economic growth to the picture, so that India will emerge as a thought leader as well as an economic power in the future.

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