Daniel Lak covered the Indian subcontinent for the BBC for nearly 20 years, many of them as the South Asia correspondent, based in New Delhi. A Canadian writer and documentary filmmaker, he lives in Toronto. At the launch of his latest book, India Express: The Future of a New Superpower, IBNLive caught up with the former BBC journalist.
IBNLive:: Do you think India is a victim of stereotype?
Daniel Lak: Stereotyping happens in response to complicated solutions. We are not all Albert Einsteins that we can store a lot of facts in our heads and have a readymade response to situations, people circumstances etc. So you stereotype.
However, not all stereotypes are negative. India is hugely complicated, thanks to its size and its diversity. People who don't have a natural engagement with you, who aren't of South Asian descent, or are academics or specialists or speak Hindi, will have some 4– 5 things to connect to when they think of India. Call it free association, but most look for some common responses to fall back upon. So in a way, India is being stereotyped. But let me assure you that India is not alone in that.
IBNLive: You have been in India for a long time now, almost 2 decades. What are the changes that you have seen?
Daniel Lak: There has been a change in the way India carries itself. There is a sense of confidence, fuelled by economic prosperity and acknowledgement of human capital world over. They are learning to live by the rules of the Western world, at least in their work areas.
IBNLive: And in their non-work areas? Do you think there has been a shift in values?
Daniel Lak: Undoubtedly, there has been a change in the way the thinking of Indian society has evolved over the years. But let's not forget that every other society has gone through this social change while growing in such leaps and bounds in the process of development.
IBNLive: Indian urban societies have seen a clear and defined transition from joint to nuclear families. Our divorce rates have also gone up. So, do you don't think it's the influence of the West rubbing off on us?
Daniel Lak: All developing societies have to go through some changes in their profile. Divorces have increased because there is less social sanction required to stay trapped in unhappy marriages. People also have choices available now. World over, developed societies are behaving in a similar fashion. In Canada too, there was a huge hue-and-cry when divorce was made more accessible. The rate of divorce went up -- some called it erosion of modern values, others said it was a matter of choice.
Urban pressures, the pressures of a market economy are really hard on families and individuals. One must realise that in a market economy, people have to work hard and end up spending less time doing the good things they really want. So this is where a work-life balance comes in. Sweden has balanced the market economy to grow and the need to create wealth with the need for recreation time and time to spend with children on the ground.
IBNLive: Your book mentions India is Asia's America. What do you mean?
Daniel Lak: When I say Asia's America, I don't mean that India becomes America. What I mean is like America, India is a liberal superpower. It is a place like America, where people want to do good themselves and want their country to do good. America wants to be seen as a country wanting to do good, and, often, despite the outcome of its individuals' actions, it's a country that has good intent.
Superpowers need to be involved in big things because there is no global leadership otherwise. Without leadership, the countries of the world do bad things. They act in their own way, in their own self-interest, act indecisively at times.
Remember the Rwanda crisis; hundreds of thousand people were killed in genocide. But the world didn't take action. And why not, because the world's only superpower decided it didn't want to do anything. And the other small, medium-sized countries wouldn't do anything. The world needs countries to help it, make up its mind and get on with useful behaviour: climate change, HIV/AIDS, weather or an acute crisis like Rwanda.
IBNLive: An unstable Pakistan, a rocky Nepal, an insurgent-filled Sri Lanka, a poverty-stricken Bangladesh. And, of course, a can't-be-trusted China. How do you see India in the next 5 years? What would the balance of power be in the South Asian region?
Daniel Lak: Hmmm. It's an interesting neighbourhood but a neighbourhood of the future. India has to get the balance right. It has to become more of a leader in its own neighbourhood without alienating people and the need of the hour is consensus. Unfortunately, South Bloc sometimes has the tendency to behave big brotherly, in a haughty manner, almost in a British colonial way and you can hear the anti-India sentiments reverberating in the neighbourhood. People actually say, we want to get along with our neighbours and share in their prosperity. Every country has something that India needs, India can trade with every country and raise the bar. Together you take all of the countries of South Asia and that makes 2 bn people. And that's remarkable. Look at Europe, if they can come together after disastrous World Wars, surely the Asian sub-continent can come together.
IBNLive: Does the nuke deal make India a bully in the eyes of its neighbours?
Daniel Lak: India's neighbours want it to succeed so that they can share in the success. Nepal's only hope of coming out of poverty and backwardness is to sell hydro-electricity to the Indians. Whatever the Bangladeshi govt says, the only market that they know they've got for gas is India. They can't consume it themselves, they haven't got enough industrial sectors, they have to share it with india. Sri Lanka has a horrible conflict that holds it back. But that is just a small part. It has the highest literacy rate, well-functioning democracy and a country with whom India has deep trade links and cultural ties.
The neighbourhood question is sometimes over-rated. Pakistan, I predict, if they start trade, within 5 years there will be no more conflict. Right now they ignore each others' trade and it is a deliberate thing by the elite of both countries who profit from the hostility, especially the Pakistani army and the old-fashioned post-Partition bureaucratic military elite here. If you let businessmen like Raman Roy run relations with Pakistan, it will be rocking.
IBNLive: What's your next book on?
Daniel Lak: The Himalayas, no more geo-politics for now.
India Express: All about being Asia's America
Former BBC journalist Daniel Lak in his new book India Express says that India's engagement with democracy makes it America's doppelganger in Asia.
Little did Daniel Lak know that he would have to face a volley of questions over the title of his second India special, India Express: The future of a new superpower. At the launch of the book recently in the Capital, the former BBC journalist who has spent close to two decades in South Asia, recollected how almost everyone he met once the book was complete did a double take on hearing the name.
"Future", "new" and "superpower" – the title was dissected singularly and collectively – the author was a little "taken aback" at the kind of incredulous looks and response that the phrase evoked. Almost everybody had one thing to say: India, and superpower. Are you sure?
Well, Lak is definite that India is a new superpower. In fact, he terms it "Asia's America", not so much in terms of America's imperialist policies but more in terms of India's engagement with democracy, unique in the region of South Asia.
And while the Canadian does the usual trip to the ghats of Varanasi, he also captures the action at a polling booth in Bihar, the intellectual atmosphere at one of India's most venerable institutes of higher learning, the IIT, Kharagpur. From the slums of Dharavi to the dynasty of NTR, Lak has done his homework well. And thanks to his natural flair for the country and its intricacies, enhanced by numbers and figures, India Express does not read presumptuous.
And it definitely doesn't read as Lak's payback gift to India. Unlike a lot of India-specials, the flow is easy. A lucid read, it spells much like his BBC-days reporting, straight to the point, without unnecessary flair. The tone is conversational, and so is the attitude. The reader is aware that an India exists. And all that Lak does is take him/her through the modern rise of India.
India Express talks of a new India where although paradoxes of poverty and hope exist, right from the Introduction which has a lower-caste dhobi named Ram who goes on to borrow money to finance his sons' education and later repays with interest to the rise of a satellite-enabled, ITed and BPOed India where young people are earning thrice the salaries that their fathers ever did. It also reiterates that the middle india is now making choices in correlation with a market economy. The entry of MNCs and the overall effect that liberalisation has had on middle india is there for all to see.
Raman Roy, Anna Hazare, Narayana Murthy, Harsh Mander, Arundhati Roy, P Sainath – Lak has them all here; to validate his ‘Superpower' theory and to prove that there are two sides to a story. And especially when it is a Narayana Murthy tale. There is an interesting anecdote of how the Infosys founder, a Communist, had given up Marx after having spent 72 hours in a Bulgarian jail in 1974 on suspicion of being a spy! (pg 24). And while Lak does delve into history (there is some of Nehru), he misses the bar when he calls Netaji a "local hero" of Bengal! (Hope the Indian National Army doesn't get to read this...!)
From coalition governments, which Lak feels is a coming-of-age of India's democracy, to the tech boom to Kashmir and the attitude of both India and Pakistan's elite towards it, India Express is a quick take on where India stands today.
And for a man whose connect with India is high, India Express is a rational discourse on its global standing. A tad bit optimistic in bits, it otherwise is an honest appraisal of a growing consumerist society that is trying to balance its socialist and humane leanings.
Price: Rs 499
Publisher: Penguin Books