India: Land of Cultural Contradictions
By Christopher Tidmore...
India is a confusing country. Perged on the precipice
of world economic and cultural power, it is a nation
where one never knows if he is in the fifth century or
Never was I confused more than when a shop keeper
in the Udipur, an historic city in the Western Indian
State of Rajasthan wooed me into his shop, over the top
of an iterant cow that happened, as usually does in
this country, decided to make a dinner of the trash
pile on the street corner.
Well versed in English, the shopkeeper began to
explain that he could make me a hand tailored suit by
morning (when my bus was scheduled to leave), and
proved his worth by showing receipts from his
customers in Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom,
and Russia. "If you want," he said in a thick, but
understandable Hindi accent, "I can ship to your
country, no problem."
For sixty dollars American, he had two pairs of
pants, as good as one would find in Perlis' in New
Orleans waiting at my hotel door ten hours later, with
a promise that for less than a hundred, he could
tailor suits to my precise specifications.
Of course, as he delivered the clothes that
morning, his scooter was blocked by livestock.
Hence, the many contradictions of India. A
country with more software designers than Silicon
Valley could claim in four decades cannot manage to
have regular trash pickup. It is a nation where
expensive foreign cars must stop as herds of cows
wander down the main streets of the Capitol of Delhi
(and everywhere else). In the countryside, just add
the possibility that an elephant might block one's way
In less than 20 years, India will shoot past
China as the world's most populous nation, yet it also
boasts of middle class as large as the population of
the United States. However, the very poor live in
front of the homes of the titans of the global
It is possessed of one of the world's most
vigourous multiparty democracies, with two main
coalitions alternating power, and competitive
elections a fact of life for almost sixty years.
However, a recent BBC poll showed that over 45% of
Indians believe that government censorship of the
press, for the "social good", is a positive trait--a
level of public support for political oppression only
matched in Singapore and China.
It is a secular Democracy, where 17% of the
population is Muslim (and outside of Kashmir peaceful)
with 6% of the remainder is either Sikh or Christian,
yet politically involved. The current Prime Minister
is, in fact, not a Hindu, but a Sikh. Yet, public
displays of the Hindu faith are everywhere, from
street corner temples constructed on public ground, to
the entrances of public buildings. No home is without
a shrine to the Elephant-headed God, Ganesh.
The official language is Hindi, but in most
parts of the country, more people speak English than
the national tongue. In fact, there are more
Anglophones in India than in Great Britian and the
United States combined. This is having a curious
affect on the direction of the English language.
In India, one often hears the word, "Prepone."
It is the opposite of postpone. Just as Americanisms
invaded the language, it is not hard, thanks to the
growing influence of Bollywood, India's international
movie industry, that prepone will enter the general
vocabulary quite soon. After all, more people watch
Bollywood films internationally than see Hollywood
movies each year.
Indians are surrounded each day by millennia of
history, yet are focused on the future--and their own
wealth in that future like no nation in the third
world. A sure indicator is the vast number of
residents of the Subcontinent who not only have a
central knowledge of American politics, but are quick
to express their personal pride that one of their own,
Bobby Jindal, has become Governor of Louisiana.
By Christopher Tidmore
This is the fourth in a series of columns on what
India can teach Louisiana. The Louisiana Weekly
reporter Christopher Tidmore went to the subcontinent
to learn more in honor of the inauguration of the
Pelican State's and the Nation’s first Indian American
On Monday, flanked by clear blue skies, Bobby Jindal
promised in his inaugural address “a new economy” in
While newspaper columns—including this one—have
focused on recent days on the new Governor’s India
connections, the subcontinent’s record of economic
reform since 1991 could prove a possible template for
economic expansion in the Pelican State.
Gutandran Das in his book India Unbound speculates
that his homeland went directly from the agricultural
age to the information age, skipping the industrial
age altogether. He sites two reasons for this leap.
Primarily, Das blames the so-called “License Raj”
that required government permits for any private
sector expansion, penalized companies for producing
than their allotted quota of products, and was
generally used as a method for the then-rabidly
socialist Congress Party to limit the private sector
in favor of its own “Five Year Plans” and general
command economy outlook throughout most of the
Of course, the 97% top income tax rate did not help,
yet when at the turn of the last decade, the Congress
Government of Narasimha Rao removed most the License
Raj in less than a fortnight, India saw its economy
explode--not in old style industry, but in software
and service sector companies.
Newspapers like the Hindustan Times have endless
classified ads for IT jobs and call center positions.
Some argue there are more software designers in
Bangalore than in Silicon Valley.
It is supposed to be impossible for a developing
economy to jump directly from subsistence agriculture
to the knowledge industries of the First World, but
India did it without much of a costly industrial
period in between.
From a personal perspective traveling in India, one
sees the leap clearly. Riding on an elephant one
afternoon up a mountain to visit the Amber Palace in
Jaipur, a strange ringing came from the direction of
the elephant driver. The man, perched on the
pachyderm’s neck, reached into his Rajasthani cloak
and pulled out a cell phone. As my wife and I
ascended in the 17th century surroundings, he chatted
all the way to a friend in Hindi.
Small villages without electricity often will have a
self powered phone and internet kiosk to communicate
with the outside world. One day, having tea with a
family in the small village of Ram Bagh, a town
possessed of no indoor plumbing, gas, or electrical
outlets, one of the young males still was able to get
a text message on his cell phone. Despite the fact
that the community still used ox-pulled ploughs
instead of tractors, the young man was able to jump on
one of the myriad of motorbikes laying about and run
up to the nearby city of Agra 70 kilometers away.
It often seems as if the First World and the Third
World have collided, and that strange disconnect
offers hope to Louisiana that our homeland can also
leap into the 21st century despite having skipped the
Das speculates that that Indians are not “tinkerers”
but “thinkers”. The philosophical traditions of the
Brahman priestly caste merged with the historic bias
against merchants lead to an embrace of the highly
theoretical nature of the IT economy. He points out
that the majority software engineers come from the
Brahman caste rather than the Bania merchant caste.
The priestly discussion of religious and
philosophical concepts created a mindset the lent
itself to the speculative intellectual nature of the
Like India, Louisiana is essentially an Agrarian
economy blessed with an overabundance of universities
and an intelligentsia more concerned with the arts and
the philosophical than the mercantile.
While not constrained by quite the governmental limits
on growth, the state does have a tax and investment
system that discourages business activity relative to
In theory, though, applying the much undersold
digital recording tax credits towards software could
level the tax playing field, and Louisiana which has
exported software engineers for so many years could
provide opportunities locally.
Like India--but unlike the rest of the United
States-- Louisiana, South LA in particular, is a
society of thinkers over tinkerers. Throughout our
history, we have created ideas, concepts, music, and
art. If America has an indigenous culture, much of
its artistic, literary, and philosophical voice was
born in New Orleans.
Still, while we cannot match the competitive
salaries that drove many American and European Firms
to invest in Bangalore and other subcontinental IT
centers, Louisiana has already proven it can match the
creative arts that have also made India prosperous.
As a previous column noted, the audience for
India’s Bollywood movies are nearly a billion people
more than the audiences that a Hollywood blockbuster
can attract. Nearly as many jobs come from India’s
movie and recorded music industries as its budding IT
businesses. And, they are indigenously grown.
So, if we can learn from India, perhaps, Governor
Jindal might invest in one of our state Universities
to make it compatible to the India Institute of
Technology, whose alumni provide much of the
intellectual backbone of the IT industry, or perhaps
he can learn another lesson.
If we are a society of thinkers—and
artists—Jindal can follow the lead of local
visionaries like Roger Wilson and seek to expand our
performance art industries. The state could make a
massive investment in the expansion of arts and
theatre high schools and academies. Invest in
repairing theatrical locations, making nexuses of
studios for recording music, and building soundstages
for filming, and take our entertainment economy from
Hollywood South and Broadway South to Bollywood West.
Pakistani Murder Threatens US-India Relations
By Christopher Tidmore...
Reporting for The Louisiana Weekly from Amitsar, on
the Pakistani-India border.
The shocking assignation of Pakistan's opposition
leader Benazir Bhutto may leave the US's carefully
crafted plan to bring Democracy to the Indo-Muslim
country in tatters, but it, along with a series of
policy mistakes, threatens a budding American alliance
with the world's largest Democracy--India.
Bhutto was shot dead on Thursday, December 27th,
when gunmen opened fire as she stood in the sunroof of
her campaign vehicle. The shooting occurred moments
before a suicide bomber blew himself up at the rally
where the opposition leader was due to make a
speech--killing more than 20 people and injuring
The Bush Administration was in negotiations last
month with the 54 year old leader of the Pakistan
People's Party to form a coalition government with the
military backed President General Perez Musharraf,
after the January 8th elections.
Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan after a decade of
exile, was reportedly reconsidering the proposal after
rejecting any sort of relationship with the dictator
following a state of emergency declaration in late
that saw her and several of her supporters jailed.
The opposition leader served as Prime Minister in the
late 1980's and early 1990's and was thought the only
politician who could unify the political opposition.
There has been a Bhutto periodically serving in
Pakistan's government since her grandfather held the
PM's post in the 1950's.
So powerful is the Bhutto name that her 19 year
old son was elected Chairman of the People's Party on
two days after his mother's assignation, despite the
fact that he cannot contest a parliamentary seat until
his 25th birthday, and had little desire to leave his
studies at Britain’s Oxford University.
Riots stretched across the South Asian nation
throughout the weekend as protestors declared that
President Musharraf had tacitly participated in
Bhutto's murder--and that the United States was
responsible for the opposition leader's death due to
its continued support of the military backed dictator.
Bhutto, ironically, was the most pro-American
politician in the country, and al Qaeda claimed that
she died because of her US ties. Interestingly,
reports in recent days confirm that Musharraf had not
only denied anti-bomb “jammers” and presidential
protection details to the opposition leader, despite warnings of
terrorist threats, but seemingly his government
claimed that there had been no gunshots until BBC
video of the killing and doctors reports proved that
Bhutto had argued in Washington three months ago
that the US's continued support for Musharraf was only
aiding Islamist rebels. That the dictator had no
desire to surrender his role has head of the military
and serve in a civilian government. The wake of the
assignation, Musharraf moved to delay elections until
February 18, and Bush Administration refused to
condemn the decision, calling it a "local matter".
Pakistan borders on chaos in some cities as
administrative structures have broken down, and
Bhutto's murder and the confused situation are
affecting previously pro-American voices in India.
Bhutto was the most popular Pakistani politician
with the general Indian populace. Her autobiography
was in the windows of every bookstore that the author
encountered. Indian television analysts often
speculated that relations between the nations would
improve when she returned to office, not a
insignificant matter considering that the two
countries nearly went to war in the last decade, and
have fought three conflicts since the partition of the
Indian Raj after independence from the British in
1947. Add to the natural hatred of Muslim versus
Hindu that each nation has nuclear missiles pointed at
the other, and an unstable Pakistan with a leader
unpopular in India is a definite international—and
The United States’ reputation in India has
experienced several damaging hits in the past couple
of months. The two nations should be natural allies.
Both are secular Democracies with virulent problem of
In the past month, al Qaeda has threatened to
blow up the Taj Mahal, and Islamic extremists have
detonated suicide bombs in prominent places throughout
the country in the past few years. Moreover, Taliban
allied terrorism in the disputed state of Kashmir
gives India a direct interest in an NATO victory in
And, thanks to Louisiana, Indian newspapers
were quite pro-American earlier this fall. Headlines
across the country touted the victory of Bobby Jindal
in the Pelican State’s Gubernatorial election, and the
implications seemed to herald a new understanding
between to two largest Democracies on the planet.
Then, Louisiana provided some bad news. For
over two weeks, national Indian Newspapers like the
Hindustan Times and the Times of India led their front
pages with reports of the murder of two India students
at LSU, and how the $5000 reward had done little to
bring their killers to justice. Questions arose in
the papers if America was safe enough to send India’s
best and brightest to study there.
The timing could not have been worse, from an
American standpoint. The ruling Congress Party was in
intensive discussions with their coalition partners,
the Anti-American Communists, to ratify a new Treaty
agreement with the United States that would provide
India nuclear fuel without the nation having to give
up nuclear weapons.
This agreement would mark the first time that
the United States pledged to provide processed uranium
for civilian use without requiring a nation to sign
the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That
international concordat requires any nation besides
the original nuclear powers to give up atomic weapons
before fissionable material was sold—an unattractive
option for India considering Pakistan had missiles
pointed at Delhi.
Communist MPs in the Lok Sabra (the powerful
lower house of Parliament) hit upon the fact that the
proposed US-India nuclear agreement would ban atomic
tests, and threatened to leave the government if
Congress proceeded with the deal. For Prime Minister
Singh, this also came at a dangerous political time.
The Congress Party lost the state of Gujarat elections
to their political rivals, the Hindu nationalist BJB,
harkening a electoral disaster for the Congress Party
if an early general election was held.
The US nuclear deal seemed in danger. At the
same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to
provide India with fissionable material without any
need to ban testing—or any strings at all.
Opposition lawmakers and some in the Congress Party
began to question whether further ties to America were
Then, another unexpected development in
Pakistan threatened the forging of any further
immediate Indian ties to the United States.
Local newspapers cited reports that the five
billion in US military aide to Pakistan, that
Musharraf had promised to use exclusively for the
pursuit of the Taliban and Islamic extremists in his
country, instead went to the strengthening of
Pakistani military positions on the Indian border.
It appeared that US negligence had endangered
the direct security of the Indian people, at least
according to popular opinion on the streets of several
northern Indian cities. Anger was palatable. One
person told The Louisiana Weekly, “It seems that every
time we try to be America’s friend, we come to regret
Just days later came the assignation of Benazir
Bhutto, and Bush Administration’s hesitance to
criticize President Musharraf’s delay of the Pakistani
elections has led many Indians from the Lok Sabra to
the streets of Delhi, Varnassi, Jaipur, and elsewhere,
to wonder if there is real US interest in democratic
reform from their dangerous neighbor at all.
October 23, 2007 10:34 PM