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Incredible India’ Yes, the Slogan Conveys the Country’s Inner Spirit

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

India has a brand, a slogan that is so simple and yet so great, so absolutely undeniable: “Incredible India.” Not only is the “in-in” alliteration rather catchy, but it’s also no exaggeration. In fact, it may even be an understatement. Love it or hate it, there’s just no other place on earth like India in terms of the enormous diversity you see and feel everywhere – in geography, people, languages, culture, religion, well, just about everything. Indians are not so totally different from one another, however, as not to share one common bond: they’re all Indian. Even if they speak different languages, worship different deities, come from widely divergent social and economic backgrounds, even from tribal groupings in remote regions, to a foreigner they are more or less the same people. That’s all the more reason to wonder at “Incredible India,” the branding of an enormous country that’s bursting at the seams in terms of population, ambitions, dreams – and, yes, problems, divisions, corruption and crime. By far the world’s largest democracy, India is full of all the political infighting, public and private controversies, charges and counter-charges, trade-offs and payoffs, loud talking and backstabbing that goes with any democratic system. The problems are multiplied in India by its immense population, more than 1.2 billion and growing at a rate that means the number of people living in India in a few years will surpass that of the Chinese.

Those parallels make India a fascinating place to visit for a look at a country to which visitors are sure to receive a warm welcome, at least initially. Business people, however, may find India “incredible” for reasons that are less than complimentary as they find themselves wading through mountains of red tape in order to export their products or invest profitably in their own companies. “In the Western media, we see comments to the effect that the shining era of India following China as an emerging economy is over and it is back to the old India,” writes Masanori Kondo in a paper presented at a seminar at the International House of Japan in Tokyo on “contemporary India for business persons”. However, he sees “the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Japan and China” as definitely one reason for Japanese companies to look seriously at India. Among factors contributing to success, he advises, “are a corporation’s relationship of trust with Indian partners, levels of communication between Indian workers and Japanese expatriates, establishment of local networks and understanding of the local politics, society and culture.”

In fact, Indian relations with Japan, and also the United States, are quite good, and possibly getting better, for reasons that have little to do with business but do elevate the chances of success for traders and investors. The fact is that India and China have not been getting along well with each other for decades, ever since the Chinese nipped off portions of India’s northern borders in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. China, moreover, is the principal source of arms for India’s historic foe Pakistan while India counts on the U.S., Russia, or even Israel for modern weaponry. India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has been to Tokyo about 20 times, and this year U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have both been to India. In all these visitations, commercial relations were high on the agenda.

The picture is mixed, but India, looking for foreign funds, is attempting to ease up on bureaucratic constraints at a time when the glow is fading from the image of success built up in the last decade before the current prolonged economic slowdown. The government, for instance, is lowering the amount of local content required in foreign ventures, including huge retail stores that want to get into India, and in foreign companies manufacturing products in India. On the downside, the United States and India are locked in a fierce struggle over restraints that India imposes on imports of solar panels and other equipment while encouraging local manufacturers to a degree that the U.S. thinks is unreasonable. India and the U.S. also quarrel over restrictions on U.S. agricultural imports and numerous other products. All the while, the U.S. and others are complaining about the high price of business visas to India. India’s disputes with the U.S. and other countries reflect not only Indian nationalism but the reality that the pace of growth of the Indian economy has fallen off sharply over the past two or three years. The economy, having leaped a stupendous ten percent in 2010, is now experiencing 4.5-5 percent growth – not too bad by the standards of many countries but below hopes if not expectations for the Indian nation. “The hope that India might overtake China one day in economic growth now seems a distant one,” wrote the famed Nobel prize economist Amartya Sen in a New York Times op-ed widely reprinted and quoted in the Indian media. “Inequality is high in both countries, but China has done far more than India to raise life expectancy, expand general education and secure health care for its people.

India has elite schools of varying degrees of excellence for the privileged, but among all Indians 7 or older, nearly one in every five males and one in every three females are illiterate. And most schools are of low quality; less than half the children can divide 20 by 5, even after four years of schooling.” Such daunting realities, though, hardly bother foreigners who come to India simply to look and learn, to sight-see and savor this unique, utterly varied society. Visitors will find that dining, traveling and sight-seeing are all possible at prices below the norm in more advanced countries whether they go at student discounts or on group tours or as individuals accustomed to luxury hotels, their own private cars and individual guided tours. There is, to be sure, a downside, namely that it’s possible to become quite ill from the Indian diet. “Delhi belly” is a common complaint. Visitors from advanced countries also will respond with shock over aspects of Indian life that are totally different from whatever they’ve seen before. The spectacle of stray dogs sleeping peacefully on sidewalks, of cows grazing contentedly beside and sometimes on streets and roads, of monkeys swinging from branches are always a little amazing. More important, visitors encounter signs of poverty that are totally alien to their own societies. People sleeping in squalid shanties or on mats beside the roads are common sights, and the poverty gets worse in the dense slums of large cities and in rural villages where many barely have enough to eat. The government is attempting to implement an extremely costly “food security” program that’s intended to give enough to eat for more than half the 1.2 billion who go hungry every day, but much of the funding is sure to go into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Short-time visitors, while aware of all these issues, have other priorities. First is the basic tour of Delhi beginning perhaps with the Red Fort, built by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when he moved it there from Agra, a two to three hour drive on a modern expressway south of the capital. Looted by the British when they drove out the last Mughal emperor after the uprising against them in 1857, the Red Fort with its high red sandstone walls and turrets and moats and ornate décor is a great way to begin to understand Indian history. There is so much else to see in Delhi that you could spend at least a week visiting just the basic sites, but you probably won’t have time. Before you leave, however, please be sure to visit Qutub Minar, that is, the Qutub Tower, one of the world’s most distinguished mosques.

The tower, originally built nearly 1,000 years ago, soars 72.5 meters, surrounded by other ancient forts and places of worship. You won’t be allowed to climb the 379 steps to the top, but a guide will gladly photograph you with your arm lifted high in the air from an angle that makes it appear as though you’re touching the tip of the edifice (he will want a small reward for his trouble, less than the rupee equivalent of a dollar). On a quick drive around New Delhi, you will be most impressed by the broad avenues and towering trees and shrubs on either side. The drive will take you by the India Gate, an archway 42 meters high that resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Designed by the British architect Edwin Lutyens, the gate was built in the 1920s to honor more than 70,000 soldiers from India who died fighting in the British forces in World War I and also includes memorials to British and Indian soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 1919 and to Indians killed in the war with Pakistan in 1971. It’s in the middle of a vast grassy area that rather reminds a visitor of the national mall in Washington DC, especially since the Lok Sabha, that is, the parliament, like the Capitol building at one of the DC malls, dominates the far end. On a relatively brief trip of a week or two, you’ve got to venture south to Agra to see one of the world’s most distinctive monuments, the Taj Mahal.

The Taj is the creation of Shah Jahan, who was so overcome by grief over the death of his young wife as she was giving birth to his 14th child that he wanted to immortalize her for the ages. For 20 years thousands of workers labored over the white marble Taj, featuring a soaring white dome, intricate artistry, minarets at the corners, at the end of a wide walk way through lush gardens. It’s simple to get to the Taj. A hired car will take you there and back on a day trip, but you may want to stay longer and see the Agra Fort, just two and a half kilometres away. Shah Jahan’s harem lived there, and Shah Jahan spent his final years there after his son deposed him as a useless old man who had depleted the national treasury. The poor man was able to look sadly from a window of his lavish home, gazing on the memorial to his wife. When I remarked to a guide that he was living comfortably in retirement, the guide responded, “But he could not be happy while under house arrest.” That’s just one of thousands of stories you will hear as you “discover” the sights all over India. For a simple start, may I suggest the “golden triangle” tour taking you down to Agra and the Taj and then over to the pink city of Jaipur before returning to Delhi. Whether you go by train, bus or car, give yourself two or three days for the trip. Built by a successor to Shah Jahan in the early 18th century, Jaipur is a “planned city” with evenly laid out streets.

At the center is the City Palace where the Mughals and their numerous wives and children once lived. The greatest sight in Jaipur is the Amber Fort, up a steep incline looming far above a beautiful lake in which rests another palace accessible only by water and which is currently closed. You should go in the morning, riding up the incline to the Amber Fort atop an elephant. The elephants are totally accustomed to tourists and will amble gently in a long line carrying visitors up to the entrance to the fort. Photographs, whether by you or an entrepreneur eager to take your picture for a small fee, are a must as souvenirs. Before you leave Jaipur completely behind, you may want to visit the “monkey temple” on the outskirts of the city on the road to Agra. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of monkeys live there, clambering in and out of the temple, leaping into pools of water. They’re banned from some of the pools and temple rooms, but they’re fun to watch and photograph.

They’re among literally millions of monkeys in and around Jaipur, a small percentage of India’s monkey population. Just don’t get too friendly with them. They’ve been known to bite, necessitating costly and painful treatment. You will never cease to be surprised by India wherever you go, however long you stay. It’s a country of contrasts, so different from everywhere else you’ve ever been, a lively democracy that aspires to modern greatness overlaying an ancient culture. Go and see for yourself. If you’re a business person, sightseeing will provide insights into the people and the culture that are likely to improve your skills in working your way through the notorious bureaucracy there. And if you’re a mere tourist, you will return home with impressions and memories that will validate the truth of the slogan, “Incredible India.”
Donald Kirk, a member of the Asia-Pacific Business & Technology advisory board, is spending much of this year in India on a Fulbright Nehru senior research grant.

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