India's global image is sinking: But should we care?

Brand India is in trouble. Corruption and rape have put a serious dent in our shiny global image. That's the conclusion of a new BBC World survey conducted by GlobesScan Inc. and and the Program on International Policy Attitudes in 25 countries.

Over the 8-year span that the poll has been conducted, the pollsters observes, "For the first time this year, those negative views (35%) slightly outnumber those with positive views of India (34 percent)." The other country to share this fate is China, whose ratings have plummeted to the lowest level. This has not been a good year for either the elephant or the dragon.

“While China and India’s prestige was enhanced by defying the gravity of the economic downturn, they seem to be falling back to earth with slowing growth rates and a perception of widespread corruption. The scandals surrounding the treatment of women in India may also have had an impact on this year’s findings," says PIPA director Steven Kull, Director of PIPA. In India's case,  this downward slide is mainly a result of shift in attitudes in North America and Western Europe.

Police disperse protesters with water canons in Delhi. Reuters.

Police disperse protesters with water canons in Delhi. Reuters.

There is some irony in this. The Delhi gang rape case was hardly an exceptional instance of sexual violence in India. What made it remarkable was the unprecedented popular outrage it evoked. It led to stricter rape laws and a sustained national debate over the status of Indian women, modernity, and violence. And these modest but positive reverberations of the case have kept it in the headlines, both in India and around the world. Every rape or sexual assault case since has been covered with greater attention and detail. Yet the impact of such media interest on international opinion has been negative. We have not become more violent as a society since 2012, but we are increasingly perceived as being so.

Similarly, the headline-grabbing scandals also reflect a positive development. The corruption isn't new, but the uncovering and subsequent investigation of 2G, Coalgate et al reflects a new demand for openness and accountability. The UPA response has been grudging, obstructive and slow, but the government has been forced to respond nevertheless. There will be consequences, be it in the court of law or at the ballot box next year. The past two years have finally revealed the rot hidden by the glossy India rising image. And this is a good thing for our nation, but not apparently for our global image.

The first 20 years of liberalisation were hailed as a revolution. Recent years have revealed that this much touted revolution has been in great part cosmetic. The medieval mindset, political corruption, crony capitalism remain entrenched despite a dramatically -- and deceptively -- altered urban landscape of malls, McDonald's, IT jobs and cell phones. And it is this harsh reality that we are finally beginning to face and challenge. However messy, chaotic and unproductive it may look on the outside, we are a nation looking for genuine progress, unwilling to settle for the usual sops and minor fixes -- though we may disagree what that progress should look like.

And right at this watershed moment, the very global image that buoyed our self-esteem is falling apart. The question is: Should we care?  There is no one answer to that question. Yes, we should if it affects our economy -- if we lose out on outsourced jobs, foreign investment, tourism. No, we shouldn't if it is just a matter of what someone in New York or Frankfurt or London thinks of us, good or bad.

Public opinion abroad is shaped by news coverage, which in the case of India has long been defined by broad-stroke simplified narratives embraced by the foreign press (prominent and laudable exceptions aside). 'Rising India' replaced 'Backward India' when we opened our markets to foreign investors. With slowing growth rates, it's now all about 'Regressing India' -- a country mired hopelessly in the past, unable to move forward. Hence, the plummeting poll numbers. None of these narratives are entirely untrue, but they have never come close to capturing Indian reality.

Add to this homogenised reportage two other factors: one, an entrenched journalistic bias toward bad news (shared by reporters around the world); two, the limited India coverage on television and domestic print editions of international publications.

Moreover, press coverage has a far greater impact on India's poll numbers than, say, that of the United States whose global image is linked directly to its foreign policy actions. The India stories aim to explain us to the domestic audience, focusing primarily on local or at best regional issues. If international coverage skews in one direction -- positive or negative -- so does international opinion. It is every bit as fickle and insubstantive as the India narratives themselves.

The real lesson of the IPI survey is that foreign coverage has a disproportionate effect on our global image -- and our own self-image. We attach far too much importance to foreign publications, getting overly excited when an Indian makes the cover of Newsweek and unduly unhappy over a sharply critical opinion delivered by the Economist. We are riveted by this reflection in a faraway mirror, mistaking it for an image of ourselves. And in this, we are no different from that guy in New York.

Updated Date: May 24, 2013 15:32 PM

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