If Indian cinema is a fantasized window to social realities, advertising often ends up as a caricature. As economic prosperity and technological advance breeds individual and national self-confidence, Indians have gradually shed their initial wariness of globalization. The enforced insularity of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi's socialism, with its attendant culture of inefficiency and deprivation, has, since the Nineties, given way to a gung-ho self-aggrandizement. With sundry Western think-tanks, not to mention the redoubtable CIA, predicting an Asian 21st century, dominated by China and India, diffidence is being replaced by creeping arrogance. Backed by a strong rupee, a robust domestic market, awesome spending power, skilled manpower and entrepreneurship, India is staking its claim to a place in the international high table.
Not surprisingly, the energies of a nation long suppressed have found articulation in strange ways. Regular TV-watchers may have noticed the commercial involving a well-heeled but brash Indian, with his secretary seated beside him, being driven in a limousine through the run-down docklands of an English city. As the car approaches a junction, he orders the driver to stop, points to a grand but shabby building and tell his secretary, 'I want to buy this company.' The sign on the building proclaims it to be the East India Company. 'For two hundred years,' he tells the bewildered secretary, 'they ruled over us. Now it's our turn.' The commercial concludes with the cocky hero being cheered into the boss's chair by a bevy of white faces. And to celebrate the Indian triumph, he passes around a tin of what I can only presume is scented pan masala.
Although the advertisement is embarrassingly gauche, it does have a certain primordial appeal in today's brash but resurgent India. A country long accustomed to scrounging for dollars, making plaintive appeals for foreign investment and queuing up for the elusive green card is revelling in the delights of an ever-growing foreign exchange reserve, the de-facto convertibility of its own currency and the importance of strategic acquisitions in foreign lands. From being the cattle fodder of an iniquitous global order, India has smelt the attractions of being able to exercise some control too. Even if that involves a vain acquisition of a mythical East India Company and forcing pan masala into the gullets of bewildered Britons.
The breakout from the socialist ghetto is now an established feature of national life. Indians are being encouraged to think big, think globally and play their role as assertive citizens of an emerging power. Speaking at Delhi's India International Centre on February 14, the foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, spelt out the broad contours of a regional doctrine. Acknowledging that the south Asian countries 'do not have a shared security perception and, hence, a common security doctrine', he advocated a new south Asia policy centred on economic cooperation and the spread of democracy. 'We are prepared,' he said, 'to do more to throw open our markets to all our neighbours. We are prepared to'make our neighbours full stakeholders in India's economic destiny and, through such cooperation, in creating a truly vibrant and globally competitive south Asian economic community.' All he asked for in return was that the neighbours 'demonstrate sensitivity to our vital concerns'.
For those familiar with both history and the advertisement, the East India Company analogy is compelling. Saran didn't stop at economics. Just as the brash Indian followed his successful acquisition of an imperial legacy with a pan masala largesse, the foreign secretary added democracy to the agenda. 'India would like the whole of south Asia to emerge as a community of flourishing democracies', he asserted. While engaging with all types of regimes in the neighbourhood, he made it clear that India's 'sympathy will always be with democratic and secular forces.'
In an earlier century, it was the white man's burden. Later, there was 'proletarian internationalism' a thinly-disguised cover for communist hegemonism ' and variants of President Woodrow Wilson's 14 points which were put to good use by the West during the Cold War. Now, with President George W. Bush embracing the neo-conservative agenda and the thoughts of Natan Sharansky with gusto, democracy has become co-terminus with good conduct. It has replaced McDonald's and MTV as an instrument of global conformism. As an aspiring global power that is in competition, but not in conflict, with the only superpower, India has expediently transformed its Hindu penchant for pluralism into an item of empire-building. Like the East India Company owner's insistence on pan masala, it is a case of our-tastes-must-be-your-tastes.
As an approach to regional dominance, the doctrine enunciated by Saran has a natural appeal. The emphasis on economic power, with the military dimension being subtly understated, corresponds to imperial Britain's experiments with an 'informal' empire, particularly in Latin America. A vibrant Indian capitalism certainly has the potential of establishing India's dominant role in all those territories that once came under the jurisdiction of the pre-1947 government of India's foreign department ' an area that stretched all the way from Aden in the west to Singapore in the east. Certainly, there is every reason to be optimistic about the prospects of the Indian rupee becoming the monetary yardstick for the whole of Asia.
It is, however, the pan-masala nationalism that warrants scepticism. The experience over the past 50 years suggests that India has invariably made a complete mess of trying to shape the destinies of other countries. Beginning with our disengagement from Burma in the Fifties, the mishandling of Nepal in the Sixties and the monumental disaster in Sri Lanka in the Eighties, a politically overbearing India has invariably ended up compromising Indian interests. In trying to force the pace of democracy in the neighbourhood, our policy-makers appear to have overlooked the systems of indirect rule that the British Empire perfected in large chunks of Africa and even the Indian subcontinent.
After the 1857 uprising, imperial strategists were convinced that neither religion nor good governance was a natural concomitant of empire-building. Many held that discreet, indirect control was preferable to assuming the role of either a governor or a pro-consul. 'It may not be very flattering to our amour propre,' wrote the legendary Lord Roberts of Kandahar in 1880, 'but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.'
In his seminal Persia and the Persian Question, written in 1892, Lord Curzon was categorical that 'the ways of the Orientals are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts. Often when we think them backward and stupid, they think us meddlesome and absurd' Our system may be good for us, but it is neither equally, nor altogether good for them. Satan found it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well-governed by Europeans.'
Curzon's observations, as always, are instructive and have relevance more than a century later. The espousal of democracy, a euphemism for pan-masala imperialism, it would seem, can endanger the prospects of any East India Company, real or fictional.
As one time anti-colonialists and Third Worldists, Indians railed against the cultural arrogance of the West. As empire-builders of the future, we could leave some of our vanity, arrogance and chewing habits to the jerks on celluloid. If real life starts emulating reel life, India could be in a spot of bother.