India - the beacon of hope for South Asia?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am

For much of its post-independence history, India was seen as the Kipling-esque land of fakirs sleeping on nail beds, sacred cows, abject poverty and, if anyone cared to remember, the imposing Taj Mahal.

But, now, in its 60th year of independence from British colonial rule, the world's largest democracy is seen as a nation of hopeful achievers; a giant awakened from a deep slumber, who discovers that he has missed out on many opportunities during the socialist stupor he had fallen into.

By throwing away the fetters of socialism, India has unleashed the pent-up entrepreneurial energy of its people. Its success story has not gone unnoticed by its neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh, both mired in internal turbulence caused by religious extremism and political instability.

Both have a history of carnage, political instability and unproductive inflamed religious passions, offering little hope for their people. India, too, has had its own share of violence, but the rule of law still takes precedence.

The leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh, two of the world's most impoverished countries, need to provide opportunities and hope for their people instead of fuelling suspicion and hostility against India, the 'big neighbour' often portrayed as the common enemy.

The people of these two countries deserve a better standard of living, denied to them in the past 60 years because the ruling elites and religious extremists saw in India-bashing an opportunity to establish their own vested interests.

Some western scholars suggest that Berlin's cold-war status be applied to present-day India. Berlin, a thriving capitalist-democratic showcase right on the doorstep of the communist bloc, was a beacon of hope and inspiration for people in communist-oppressed countries.

With its thriving economy, democratic institutions, secularism, and free press and judiciary, India could become the Berlin of South Asia. Just as the west and, particularly, the United States helped Berlin overcome its problem of survival, the US would be well served in the long run by strengthening India's hand and demonstrating to the other South Asian countries that religious fanaticism is no solution to their problems.

With its clout, the US could prod Pakistan and Bangladesh to engage in greater trade and cultural interaction with India.

Many pundits believe that the 'Berlin status' for India would be a way to combat political instability and religious extremism in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Just as people in the former communist bloc were impressed by Berlin's achievements, the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh can discern the glaring differences between their own countries and India - where democracy and the rule of law, no matter how imperfect, exist along with the opportunity to progress. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis often ask why they cannot do what Indians have done.

India's 'Berlin status' might well be the answer.

Manik Mehta is a New York-based political commentator