Material realities and cultural lags


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THE persistence of vision creates an illusion of continuity when viewing a cinematic production. In like fashion, the persistence of analytical categories creates illusions of continuity where change is the norm.

Till as recently as 2005, the official Economic Survey issued by the Ministry of Finance just prior to the Central government’s annual budget, categorised the direction of India’s foreign trade in terms of four main sources and destinations. The industrially advanced countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) formed one bloc, while the oil-rich economies of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) constituted another. Eastern Europe was a third bloc and bringing up the rear was the category of ‘Other Less Developed Countries’, or ‘Other LDCs’. In turn, the aggregate figures for ‘Other LDCs’ were broken up in accordance with three sub-categories: Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Thus it was, between 1990-91 and 2003-04, that as exports to ‘Other LDCs’ increased by close to 20 times and imports from them almost ten-fold, the categories of the finance ministry remained unchanged. Over this period, trade with Eastern Europe languished, registering little if any growth. Indeed, the Asia sub-category within ‘Other LDCs’ increased its share in India’s total exports from 14.3 per cent in the financial year 1990-91 to 27.6 per cent in 2003-04. Yet the annual Economic Survey remained pretty much oblivious to presenting the finer details of this broad category and towards accounting for the dynamics of such rapid transformation.


This would seem rather curious, since the growth of India’s economic linkages with developing countries in Asia represents a rare instance of reality panning out in accordance with the stated intent of policy. Back in the early-1990s, when a Congress government with P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister and P. Chidambaram as Commerce Minister set out on a voyage into the unknown, there seemed few secure anchorages available in the turbulent waters of the global economy. India had been pushed into a policy of currency devaluation and trade liberalisation by the ravages of the Gulf crisis of 1990-91. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the most significant external prop of the Indian economy – for many of its essential needs and strategic requirements – was knocked out. And the search for alternate sources of sustenance was not proving particularly promising.

Japan was at the time going through serious economic turmoil. The Nikkei stockmarket index had crashed in 1986 and jealousies in the U.S. had been stoked by Japan’s virtual conquest of the U.S. market for automobiles and electronic chips. Anxious not to offend the U.S., Japan had agreed on a number of ‘voluntary export restraints’ and revalued its currency.

On another frontline of the global economy, the Federal Republic of Germany – a bountiful source of capital flows to the rest of the world through the 1980s – had assumed a wider territorial expanse after reunification with the East. Capital that was earlier available for investment in the rest of the world was in the bargain, being diverted into the effort to buttress the unification process.

The U.S. was then going through a crunching economic recession as the debt-induced profligacy of the Reagan-Bush years caught up with spendthrift companies and consumers. In the gloom that ensued, there seemed only one bright spot: the East and South East Asian economies that seemed to retain their dynamism and continue along a fairly vigorous growth trajectory.


It was in this context that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao undertook visits to China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, and India in 1992 became a sectoral dialogue partner in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). A further signal of this new attitude towards the ‘East’ came with Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore, being honoured as chief guest at India’s Republic Day in 1994. In a series of interactions with the media, Goh Chok Tong expressed his complete endorsement of India’s new economic regime. But he also wondered aloud about how India would manage its transition, since integration with the global economy, while being attractive in principle, necessarily meant choosing a regional bloc as primary anchorage. ‘The South East Asian and East Asian economies are booming,’ he said. ‘The U.S. will remain engaged in this area. It is not just looking to Asia and Europe, but to Mexico and Chile. So where does that leave India? It must open up and decide how it wishes to integrate with the world economy.’


The Singapore prime minister clearly was referring to the first summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) that had taken place just two months before his visit. With its Atlantic alliance then in a rather tenuous state, the U.S. had in November 1993 hosted the first APEC summit. This was partly a recognition of the increasing weight of the trans-Pacific relationship in the U.S.’s economic ties; partly an effort to break out of the slough of discord that the Uruguay Round of global trade talks had fallen into. Though a significant player in the Uruguay Round, with an energetic and principled case on industrial patents and agricultural trade, India seemed consumed by a sense of bitterness that it had not secured an invitation to the APEC banquet.

APEC clearly had other priorities, foremost among them being the competing claims of China, Hong Kong (then still a territory of the British crown), and Taiwan. And as the immediate context for Prime Minister Goh’s remarks, the U.S. exercised its leverage – once the knot over Chinese representation was cut – to ensure that of all the competing claims to membership from Latin America, only those of Chile and Mexico were met. The first APEC summit also resolved that there would be no further membership applications entertained for four years. When membership was opened, Peru, Vietnam and most implausibly, Russia, were admitted, and the door shut once again on India with the decision that new members would not be entertained till 2007. Parenthetically, it may be added that at the Sydney APEC summit in January 2007, India’s membership was among the most seriously discussed issues, though it was finally left unresolved.

India’s ardour for APEC was perfectly in sync with the new web of economic relations that it was forging. After a year of indifferent performance, India’s exports resumed an upward growth path in 1993-94 – the very year that APEC held its first summit. And the first glimmers of a significant structural shift in India’s foreign trade were evident right then. Germany and Japan, traditionally the second and third-largest markets for India’s exports, had begun slipping away from the front ranks. Indeed, of India’s aggregate export growth that year, close to half was absorbed by five countries – the U.S., China and the three largely ethnic Chinese states of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. More than ASEAN, which was of course a body sponsored and actively promoted by the U.S. as part of its Cold War strategy in the region, APEC seemed the only forum in which this unique configuration of commercial interests could be adequately represented.


The shift has since then gathered momentum. Of India’s total foreign trade in 1993-94, 16.4 per cent was conducted with six Asian economies: China, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. In 1998-99, a year of consolidation after the Asian financial melt-down of 1997, this figure stood at 17.5 per cent. By 2003-04, this group of six countries, with a share of 20.9 per cent, had exceeded the entire European Union in terms of its share in India’s foreign trade and China (by now inclusive of Hong Kong) with 8.4 per cent had emerged as India’s third largest trading partner. Viewed another way, it would be evident that the vigour of India’s growing economic engagement with China has singularly been responsible for providing substance to its ‘Look East’ policy.

Yet for all of China’s salience within the new economic engagement that India has fashioned for itself, the official discourse remains suffused with a deep ambivalence. The Economic Survey for 2003-04 for instance, while noting China’s emergence as India’s third largest trading partner, continues to talk of it as a subordinate component of India’s engagement with ASEAN. Indeed, China is spoken of as one among three appendages in an ‘ASEAN+3’ approach to international trade. India’s unique attitude towards China speaks of how it is possible to engage economically with a country that remains culturally a rather distant entity and is strategically seen as a rival and a potential threat.


This is evidently a deeply entrenched attitude, derived in great measure from the geopolitics of India’s post-independence years and the manner in which the political establishment and the media have conditioned public opinion. China is okay to do business with, but difficult to befriend. It is an attitude that often shows up in certain telltale locutions in the print media. The Times of India (13 April 2007, page one) for instance, in reporting India’s ‘technology validation’ – as it was euphemistically called – of a ballistic missile that could fly intercontinental distances, headlined both the success of the test and the fact that China was still ahead in that field of warfare. The test, said the lead paragraph of the story, was an important step towards building ‘minimum credible deterrence against China.’ Though this ‘most ambitious nuclear capable missile’ could fly a distance of 3,500 kilometres, it still fell short of China’s capabilities. And for all that, India now had the capability to ‘strike even Beijing and Shanghai.’

If trade and economic integration are supposed to be solvents for mutual suspicions, the equations between India and China, as reflected in sections of the India media, clearly points to a more complex reality. Every event connected with China is framed by a discourse that emphasises competition and strategic antagonism. And this often reaches extremes of illogic and seeming ludicrousness.


A survey of international news coverage in three Indian newspapers: The Times of India, The Hindu and The Economic Times, carried out over the month of March, may serve the purpose of arriving at a rough index of the news priorities and editorial predilections of a section of the print media. The author took a random sample of newspapers over a period of ten days in the month of March, and made an effort to assess the space devoted to different regions of the world and specific global issues. The results are shown in the table.

A newspaper is a cultural product whose commercial success is gauged by the demographic segments that it caters to. The higher the purchasing power available in the audience that it reaches, the greater is likely to be its success, because it would then be seen as an appropriate forum for advertisers to display their wares. And if an assessment were needed of what manner of world news coverage is of interest to the high purchasing power demographics, then the pattern displayed by The Times of India (ToI) could be taken as canonical.

In terms of news priorities, issues and themes oriented around the environment, health and science, merit pride of place in ToI. This broad category is followed, though at a considerable distance, by lifestyle, entertainment and celebrity matters. The relative calculus between these two categories though is a little skewed by the fact that the month of March saw significant global developments in the climate change debate. In more normal times, celebrity coverage, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the entertainment business would figure somewhat higher in the scale of priorities. Between them, these two categories provide the best kind of ‘editorial context’ for advertisements. They represent the principal focus of elite interest, since politics has acquired a bad odour and the complexities of geopolitics are considered the arcane and irrelevant pursuit of specialists.


Where coverage of global news by region is concerned, the U.S. expectedly merits top priority, if the residual category of the ‘rest of the world’ were to be omitted. Breaking up the over-broad category of the ‘rest of the world’ into its elements would reveal that Europe and the U.K. are the dominant concerns, far outweighing Africa and the Arab world. The Arab world in fact, despite the vast Indian diaspora that it plays host to and its significance in the country’s international trade relations, is unlikely to merit much attention unless it is in some ways related to the ‘global war on terror’.


Finally, it is a telling comment on the importance that the ToI attaches to India’s ‘Look East’ policy that East Asia and South East Asia together merit less than three-fourths the space given the U.S. in its news pages. But if Indian officialdom has managed to obscure the centrality of China in the whole new policy domain by using the rather bland characterisation of ‘ASEAN+3’, the ToI does not make that mistake. Coverage of East Asia, which consists predominantly of news stories from China, took over six times the space that South East Asia did during the survey period.

Average Space For Specific Regions and Themes in World News Coverage of Indian Print Media


Global War on Terror

India’s neighbou-hood r


East Asia

SE Asia

Strategic Affairs

Lifestyle Celebrities Entertainment

Environment Health Science

Rest of the World













% to total











The Hindu











% to total






















% to total











Explanatory note on the table: The figures are in column-centimetres. Where stories pertain to specific countries, they are easily classified. Coverage of bilateral issues involving India and another country is classified under the appropriate region. Needless to say, most of the stories classified under ‘lifestyle’ and ‘environment’, bear western datelines and are sourced from western news agencies or publications. In the case of ET, news involving companies and their foreign partnerships and ventures have not been considered. The analysis pertains only to news of a macro-economic or political character.

A qualitative analysis of the stories reveals firstly, a tendency to read rivalry into situations that clearly do not have any such inherent potential. Most ludicrously, on 27 March, the ToI reported that China had begun ‘farming tigers’ for using their body parts in traditional herbal medicines, and that this was occasion for India to wake up. On a more mundane plane, on 7 March, the newspaper in reporting India’s effort to commit a number of external oil and gas sources to ensure a secure energy flow, framed the entire enterprise in the language of competition with China.


November 2006 saw a significant Chinese initiative in world affairs, when Beijing hosted the Summit of Africa. Coverage in the Indian media was perfunctory and when available, suffused with adverse speculation about China’s motives. Thus, the ToI ran a story under the suggestive headline ‘Ambitious China Courts the Dark Continent’, about an intent to ‘redraw the world’s strategic map by forming tighter political ties between China… and Africa.’ This story, sourced from The New York Times news service proposed, almost as an axiom, that China must have interests in Africa that run counter to India’s. And just to ensure that the message was not lost in transmission, the ToI ran an editorial on 6 November that counselled New Delhi against getting into ‘a race with Beijing’, since that was one contest it could not win. India would be better advised, it wrote, to ‘revive its historic links with Africa and use the large Indian diaspora, particularly in South Africa to good effect for furthering trade.’ While doing so, the ToI advised, India should remind itself that trade is not in itself a noble motivation. India should, as it seeks to ‘take its place in the high table of international politics... realise its responsibilities towards less developed nations.’

Later in November, in preparation for a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, the ToI featured a report under the headline, ‘Chinese don’t trust Indians’ (12 November, page 8 of Delhi edition). Anybody who cared to read beyond the headline and the lead paragraph of the story would have found that the sentiment was more than fully reciprocated by India. As the Pew Global Attitudes Survey had inferred, ‘43 per cent of Indians feel negatively about China (and) 39 per cent of Chinese feel negatively about India.’ These bare findings of what must have been a rather more complex survey, were placed in context by the tendentious punditry of two well-known strategic hawks from New Delhi, one of whom identified negative stereotyping in Chinese textbooks as the underlying cause, while the other thought the problem lay in latent cultural insecurities emanating from India’s proven civilizational glory as the birthplace of Buddhism, among other things.


A reader of the ToI of March 7 would have found two stories on China: that it had been identified quite firmly by an international team of researchers as the source of the bird flu virus, and that its government was deeply worried over the freedom of expression that the spread of the internet afforded. The reader would have been oblivious to the fact that the National Peoples’ Congress in China had just concluded a session in which its deliberations had been dominated by the growing income inequality in the country. He would have in this sense, been deprived of an opportunity to learn of a common element with India’s own growth trajectory over the last decade. He would have further lost the linkages with global debates on poverty, that have essentially focused on India and China as the two countries where the most significant progress could be made, if only economic strategies could ensure equity while promoting growth.


On account both of the high priority accorded to China by editorial policy and the fortuitous circumstance of having a competent correspondent stationed in Beijing, The Hindu, published a sequence of reports on the National Peoples’ Congress that highlighted its various nuances and subtleties. In fact, in its overall allocation of space to the various parts of the globe, The Hindu would be seen to have a more balanced policy. Lifestyle and entertainment are of little importance and the U.S. merits only fractionally more space than East Asia. Most crucially, the world affairs coverage in this newspaper respects India’s geographical location and does not seek to leapfrog over the country’s neighbourhood in seeking to foster the urge among its readership to emulate the trends and lifestyles of the affluent West. Coverage of neighbourhood issues is by far the single most important component of world news coverage in The Hindu.

The Hindu has been held to account by its readership on occasion for a supposedly uncritical attitude towards China. Just prior to President Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi last November, the Chinese ambassador to India caused a serious diplomatic row by claiming that the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh was sovereign Chinese territory. Diligent readers of The Hindu, after closely following the coverage of this particular incident and the ensuing fracas, held their newspaper culpable of deliberately underplaying the whole affair and in this manner seeking to foster a wholly unfounded sense of optimism about the possibilities of a full political and diplomatic rapprochement with China. It was a reader rebellion that the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu – an in-house functionary with broad powers of examining news priorities, though little authority to question editorial policy – was hard pressed to explain away.

The Economic Times (ET) as a newspaper from the same business group as the ToI, is likely governed by an identical commercial philosophy. But ET is a cultural product whose utility is assessed by the money value of the information it provides to the reader. Lifestyle and celebrities afford some titillation but little profit. The world news coverage in ET spares little space for these staples of its sister publication. But its coverage of the main regions of interest still seems to suggest a set of priorities identical to the ToI.


Perhaps then, this is an accurate measure of what the interests of the English newspaper reading audience in India are. Unlike The Hindu, which seems to believe that a newspaper should in some measure engage in a relationship of tutorship with its readers, the ToI and the ET perhaps believe in just providing the audience what it wants. Both these relationships could work as self-fulfilling prophecies. An audience that has been exposed to the relentless tutelage of its newspaper for some time, may well start believing that what it gets is really what it wants. And an audience that initially resists or resents what its newspaper provides, may over time, acclimatise itself rather well to its daily news diet.

Either way, if the relative degrees of commercial success enjoyed by the different newspapers are considered, the inescapable conclusion perhaps is that ‘Look East’ is a policy orientation born purely in economic self-interest. For the Indian elite, it is everything to do with commerce and very little to do with cultural or emotional affinities.