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Whither India?
Prominent citizens contemplate its prospects

To the world, it seems that India has finally arrived with a bang and is suddenly the flavor of the year. But how do Indians themselves see their nation? Some are gushingly optimistic and others sourly skeptical, but most acknowledge that it is exciting to be an Indian today. A sampling of views:

SUHEL SETH, the Harvard-educated vice chairman of Delhi-based Brand Dotcom Ltd.: In the last few years, India has moved from an autocracy to a meritocracy. Before, you still needed licensing, you needed to toe the government line, to suck up to the powers that be. Now, old-world values have been replaced by new-world vision. Earlier, we were feared because of our size and the mistakes we could make. That has been replaced by admiration.

ISHER JUDGE AHLUWALIA, head of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations: Growth in India was 5.8% in the 1980s. Then in 1991, we opened up the economy and growth in the 1990s has increased to 6.6%. We are clearly on an uptrend and there is no going back. Still, democracy restrains us. It makes decision-making slower. But that is a price worth paying. Some people talk about how the "controlled democracies" of Malaysia or Singapore do better. I would not want that. And if you look long-term, because we have our democracy and our institutions, we may fare better than China.

SYED SHAHABUDDIN, an ex-MP from poor and populous Uttar Pradesh state and now publisher of the Muslim India monthly: India may be doing well, but its Muslims are not. They are very unhappy; there is a bias against us. Only 11 of the 543 national MPs are Muslims. The police discriminate against us — when we go to them, they say: Why are you complaining? If you don't like it here, go to Pakistan. But Muslims are doing better in small-scale private businesses, where they are self-employed and look after themselves.

NAJMA HEPTULLA, a New Delhi Muslim and deputy chairman of the Upper House of Parliament: We are a mature, strong democracy. No other country in the region has that kind of democratic base. We could have gone faster. But it's better to be slow and steady, than to be fast and make mistakes. Economically we have made great strides, especially in information technology (IT). And there is no country that can match India's textile industry.

SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY, a Calcutta-based commentator: India, which should play a much more prominent role in the region, is very squeamish about exercising its power. The other nations in South Asia resent India's size. But India cannot shrink to order. In Europe, I don't think that Belgium and Luxembourg expect to be taken on a par with Germany. But India concedes that kind of parity to all its neighbors. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN is astute — which the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is not. ASEAN members, which are wary of Indonesia, subsume the potential Indonesian threat in constructive engagement.

MANI SHANKAR AIYAR, a south Indian MP of the opposition Congress party: Economically, China does better than India because it is self-sufficient in oil, receives huge investments from overseas Chinese, and is a dictatorship. Foreign investors like dictatorships. They may love democracy at home, but they loathe it abroad. We'd have been twice as rich today if we hadn't been a democracy. That said, I'm proud of our being a democracy, which has compelled us to pay attention to social inequality and economic injustice.

SHOBHA DE, a Bombay-based writer and columnist: You don't feel apologetic about being Indian any more. Indians can flash their passports with a little more pride now. As for the urban Indian woman, she is unrecognizable from what she was 20 years ago. That is all due to her being in an economically stronger position. She is an equal contributing partner to the family kitty. It's not enough having a mind of your own if you don't have an income to match. So today's contemporary urban marriage in India is a far more equal marriage.

AMAR SINGH, a member of the Upper House of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh: India is a functioning chaos. Despite this and all the other negative circumstances, India is going to rise. We have tremendous human resources and the people have great perseverance. India is a true picture of unity in diversity. One major problem is the disastrous political situation. The party leading the coalition government, the BJP, is fascist. It refuses to ban those groups that persecute Christians and Muslims.

PRIYA PAUL, president of Park Hotels:
India is the flavor of the month, whether you are talking about business confidence and the IT sector that is driving it, or about the impact of fashion, art and music in Europe and the U.S. — but not so much in Asia. Not enough Asians are coming to India. It's not a holiday destination for most of them.

RUSSI MODY, a Parsi from Bombay and ex-chairman of Air India, Indian Airlines and Tata Iron & Steel: Fifty years ago, we Indians chose democracy as the best means of governing ourselves. It can only succeed if the people are educated enough to recognize this. Unfortunately, while we have achieved progress in fields such as agriculture and information technology, we have not been successful in governing ourselves. It is time we woke up to the fact that there is a total lack of leadership, efficiency, education and discipline. A new generation needs to take up the reins of government.

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