Is India really an emerging knowledge superpower? Exclusive excerpts from Meera Nanda’s book The God Market, which was released recently…

We, the Indians, as Guru of all nations. Yes, I believe in that…

A.B. Vajpayee

Yad ihasti tad anyatra, yan nehasti na tat kavcit

Whatever is here might be elsewhere, but what is not here could hardly ever be found.

Mahabharata, 1.56.33

Of all the people in the world, guess who are the most bewitched by their image in the looking glass?

We are.

Indians rank number one in the world in thinking that we are number one in the world. Or rather, that our culture is.

This ranking comes from the 2007 Global Attitudes Survey carried out by the well-known American think tank, Pew Research Center. The survey asked people in 47 countries if they agreed or disagreed with this question: “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.”

Indians topped the list. A whopping 93 per cent agreed that our culture was superior to others, with 64 per cent agreeing without any reservations. The survey involved 2043 respondents, all of them from urban areas which means a higher proportion of literates, English speakers, and relatively well-to-do. Within the limitations that apply to all public opinion surveys, the figures reported by Pew give us a rough idea of how relatively privileged Indians see themselves vis-À-vis the world…

…This unquestioning belief in the superiority of “our culture” is why so many otherwise sensible people seem to buy into the glib talk of India as an emerging superpower. If one were to believe the political, business, and religious leaders, India is barely a couple of decades away from becoming the Number One in everything from IT, science (or “knowledge” more broadly), technology, higher education, medicine, economy, culture, and of course spirituality. By 2050 or so, India will finally achieve the status of jagat guru in the realms of both the spiritual and the material…

…This hype about the Hindu mind is preventing a more realistic assessment of the state of Indian science and technology including the much-admired IT sector. While the general impression is that India is making great strides towards becoming a “knowledge economy”, facts on the ground tell a more sobering story.

Indian science and technology is not faring very well when compared to our Asian neighbours or even when compared to its own earlier record. Consider the fact that none of India’s top institutes of science or technology has ever made into the top 100 of the prestigious Shanghai ranking of the top 500 universities of the world. Only three Indian institutions have ever made it into the list at all, but at a very low rank: the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore scored in the 251-300 range, and IIT-Delhi and IIT-Kharagpur figured in the lowest bracket (451-500). In contrast, five of Japan’s universities figured in the top 100 universities and two Chinese universities ranked higher than India’s. The irony is that the quantity and quality of scientific research has been steadily declining even as the number of universities and deemed universities has been growing, and even as the budgets for research and development have been getting bigger. The number of research papers from India in peer-reviewed journals fell from 14,987 to 12,227 between 1980 and 2000, while China’s grew from merely 924 to 22,061. When measured for quality (or impact) of Indian research, the data is equally dismal: only 0.33 per cent of research papers published from India make it in the top one per cent of the most cited papers in the world, while the corresponding figure from China is about twice as high. Even the much-hyped IT sector has created stupendous amount of wealth not because of superior innovations, but because it is cheap. It is true that the IT industry has come a long way from its techno-coolie days, but still the engine driving it remains relatively routine information tinkering at a relatively low cost.

All told, invoking the Hindu Mind does not take us very far in understanding the modern world that we are creating through the blood, tears, and sweat of all Indians…

Pride without prejudice

…Pride in the achievements of your own tribe is a legitimate emotion. But when pride is fuelled by — and contributes to — prejudice against others, it becomes jingoism.

…the self-congratulatory conflation of all of India’s achievements into Hinduism is contributing to the emergence of a jingoistic Hindu majoritarian mindset.

There are two big dangers of this mindset. The first is an exaggerated sense of our achievements as a people. This may be a good ego booster in the short run, but it can lead us into a self-defeating complacency.

The second danger is potentially deadlier, and that is the growing tolerance of intolerance towards non-Hindu minorities. Those who are convinced that all that is worthwhile and commendable in India is a product of the Great Hindu Mind will not have much respect and fellow feelings for non-Hindu minorities, especially if there is a history of bad blood between them. They will not get too upset or angry when their elected leaders allow occasional pogroms, so long as they can promise to make India a Great Nation, a jagat guru. They will consider it perfectly normal and right that Hindu women be abducted if necessary to prevent them from marrying Muslim men. They will consider it just right that Muslims don’t move into their neighbourhoods, and so on.

The only way to challenge the majoritarian mindset is to reclaim all of India’s achievements for all its people. India is what it is not because of Hindu genius, but because Indians of all faiths, and of no faith, have struggled and toiled and sacrificed.

The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India more Hindu, Meera Nanda, Random House, 2009, p.240, Rs. 395.