Sunday, January 13, 2008

India - Always in my head

After returning from Los Angeles Olympics 1984, shooter Soma Dutta wrote a series of articles about her experiences. One article was titled "India-ta kothay"? (Where is India?) Apparently, inside the Village, she was asked that question quite a few times by American journalists and volunteers, much to her chagrin and astonishment. How could someone not know about the seventh largest and the second most populous country in the world unless, of course, they learned their list of countries from the Olympic medal tally?

I have never faced that particular question as a follow-up to the deceptively complex "where are you from?", but even as late as in mid-late 90s, and especially in Pacific Northwest, I had to distinguish India from West Indies and Indians from native Americans several times since older Americans, in particular, sometimes followed up with "East Indies, not West, right?" or "so you are an East Indian?" I used to find those references anachronistic and a little amusing. Having been living in bay area for the last seven years and recently been chastised a few times by a follow-up of "of course, which part?", now I usually reply "Calcutta" to meet a blank stare sometimes, and at other times, having to end up explaining that it is neither in north India nor in south. Bay area is atypical, but I do travel quite a bit all over the country and it seems some progress is being made. India is in.

During last weekend's ABC/Facebook presidential debate hosted by Charlie Gibson, India showed up several times which was a little unusual. US political debates are not particularly known for their focus on countries not named Mexico or OPEC. Not that any of the serious -- with all due respect to Ron Paul's incredible Internet blitz campaign, his chances of winning the republican nomination is not much higher than that of any random atheist transgendered lesbian black woman -- candidates is an isolationist, but there is widespread consensus and very little to argue about the relationships between US and other major countries. We should, therefore, probably take notice when India becomes an exception, not once but four times. After all, one of these debaters will become No. 44 in less than a year, and what contexts bring India to the foreground of his -- or her -- thought processes are perhaps significant.

During the republican debate, Ron Paul's first reference to India was in the context of increasing health care costs forcing Americans to travel to India to get heart surgeries done. Even after the travel and hotel expenses, the costs are lower in some cases. Paul is not supporting more government intervention in health care. He is speaking against government money printing and deficit spending that he thinks are responsible for triggering inflation in health care costs which would have been lower otherwise. India, in this context, is an alternative provider of high-quality critical health care services at a much lower cost.

Second reference to India in that debate did involve oil. Gibson's contention was India along with China and other emerging economies were going to compete with US for oil and consequently, increasing global demand and consumption of oil would push gas prices higher, probably much higher. No republican candidate disagreed with his premise. Supply-side concerns about oil have been commonplace, but increasingly apparent fear about competitive global demand for oil challenging US consumer spending, and open expression of that fear in public forums are fairly recent.

During the democratic debate, it was Senator Clinton who brought up India for the first time when asked about how she was going to handle re-energized and re-constituted Al Qaida leadership in Western Pakistan and more specifically, the possibilities of them acquiring nuclear weapons. While discussing the importance of precluding any reactions against India by taking Pakistani government into confidence before launching intelligence-based actions against Al Qaida, Clinton used a particularly astute phrase "inherent paranoia about India in the region of Pakistan". Unfortunately, there was no follow-up discussion on whether stoking or quelling that paranoia was more in line with US national interest. In answering the same question, Richardson clearly stated that $11B assistance given to Musharraf to fight terrorism was used to fight against India and was basically stolen.

The last reference to India was also made by Richardson who followed up on his oft-repeated and disputed claim that US was 29th in the world in maths and sciences by saying that India and China are more competitive as they graduate many more times engineers than US does. Even if we disregard per-capita statistics and the quality of graduates, the number seems inflated, although his main point about the need to increase investments in research to stay competitive in a global economy holds.

To summarize, India is consuming a lot of oil, providing relatively inexpensive critical health care services to US citizens, suffering from USA's misguided Pakistan policy and might face a catastrophe in future if Al Qaida leadership in Pakistan is not dealt with intelligently, and is going to be a competitive threat by graduating more engineers than US. Thankfully, not much anti-outsourcing rhetoric and smear campaign tactics.

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