Source: DNA India

I have been thinking a lot about national identity and self-image over the last few days. As a nation how do we tell ourselves who we are and how do we see ourselves? As the reader might rightly guess the provocation was the recently concluded first visit of the Indian Prime Minister to the United States of America.

To a section of Indians brought on a staple of revenge dramas Modi stepping on the US soil has special significance. Here was a man who had been denied a US visa on numerous occasions. Finally, he made the country bend to his will. It could be argued that the US was honouring a nation and not an individual but I do not think any Modi supporter will buy this argument.

But to a larger and more significant group of Indians, the visit signified the arrival of India on the world scene. One Hindi newspaper was bold enough to compare Modi’s visit to Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Chicago in the late nineteenth century.

On the day Indians here and in the United States were celebrating Narendra Modi’s first visit to the US as the Prime Minister, The New York Times carried a cartoon celebrating India’s successful Mars mission. Dressed as a poor farmer with an emaciated cow in tow India was knocking on the doors of the Elite Space club where Western powers, dressed as gentlemen in suits, were reading about India’s space mission in the papers.

The images shocked me. This is not what I thought the Americans thought of us what with an Indian at the helm at PepsiCo and Microsoft and dozens of other global corporations headquartered in the US. Yet there it was. That’s how Americans see us: a poor farmer with a cow. The contrast could not have been starker. The day India’s Prime Minister was making a speech from the Madison Square Garden announcing his arrival on the world scene New Yorkers woke up to The New York Times’s image of India delivered at their doorstep.

Soon after seeing the cartoons I switched on the television. I was expecting Modi supporters to gherao the offices of NYT but there was no even a murmur of dissent. Instead of lauding our effort on the cheapest Mars Mission till date, the American media chose to rely on stereotypes yet an entire nation had decided to look the other way. The image of India in the NYT and the image of India in Madison Square Garden are two incompatible images. A poor farmer with an emaciated cow has no reason to celebrate his PM’s US visit.

Clearly when it comes to self-image Indians believe in self deception. While Indians may like to believe that our upward growth curve intersects the US’s downward arc at a point beneficial to us, such an impression is rarely taken seriously in the USA. Unfortunately, India is not as top of the mind in the USA as USA is top of the mind in India. Especially if the international news channels are to be believed voices like India’s don’t really figure in the US scheme of things. Indian however would like to believe otherwise. The situation reminds of the countless love stories I have read where one party is always a little more keen than the other. In the case of Indo-US relations it seems like a full-blown case of one-sided love.