Street level interviews of random Chinese people on which country they hated the most came up with a not unexpected list – Japan (for the WW2 atrocities), Korea, the US and India. The reasons for disliking India were not as Indians would hope – because of the challenge the country poses to Chinese hegemony – but the caste system, habit of relieving themselves anywhere, poor quality of water and overall bad living conditions. Quite obviously, the stereotypical image of India continues unchallenged in the perception of people that have not had the opportunity to actually meet Indians. The survey was undertaken in a provincial setting so, perhaps, the people in the big cities could have a different opinion. Anyway, this is not good news for Indian strategists who would be hoping that public opinion in China takes India seriously enough to influence government policy there.
At the same time, though, Indians must ponder how far off the perception is from the reality. There may be many more dimensions, today, but has the stereotype been effectively countered? How is it that so many decades after Independence, the basic amenities are still not available to the populace? After all, in a democracy, what other priorities could the elected representatives have had to ignore these necessities? Was it a lack of resources? The focus on toilets, water and electricity connections, housing, school level education etc., has come only in the recent Modi era. Why not earlier? Can the ruling elite be blamed, or is it the people’s shortcoming?
If India’s borders are to be guarded, it is not enough that the armed forces be well trained and equipped. There is no point in complaining about China setting up high quality settlements on ‘occupied territory’, when India cannot do the same even in areas where it is easy to do so. The Indian establishment wants to implement first world standards in certain sectors, while accepting third world conditions in many others. Neither Indian power nor image can be successfully projected with such inherent shortcomings. At every developmental stage, when hard decisions had to be taken, leaders have tended to take the easy populist way out. As in the case of the caste system, tokenism has been preferred to actually empowering the disadvantaged sections. Failure to check population control is now projected as the ‘demographic dividend’, even as the increased numbers lack the ability to sustain themselves, leave alone contribute to the nation. The people must ask the politicians to explain how this approach has worked and what has been achieved. That would be a more functional democracy and serve the nation better.