The curse of obsequiousness

December 13, 2010

A version of the following was published by DNA on 14th dec 2010 at under the title” Why we are the world’s worst bunch of kowtowers”.

The curse of endemic obsequiousness


Rajeev Srinivasan wonders whether Indian officials’ refusal to grow a backbone is an unfortunate national trait


The incident in Mississippi was startling: the Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, clad in a sari, was pulled out of the security line at an airport and subjected to a humiliating pat-down, apparently because of Transportation Safety Administration guidelines about ‘voluminous clothes’.


This, despite the fact that the ambassador produced her diplomatic papers. I suppose one could argue that the Mississippi officers were just doing their job, although it is possible that a little xenophobia, if not a little racism, was thrown in. Somehow I can’t imagine them patting down a white woman in a voluminous bridal dress.


But worse, the Indian Embassy tried to hush this incident up. It turns out this is not the first time it has happened to Meera Shankar. The embassy would have done nothing this time too if a local paper hadn’t carried shocked observations by the ambassador’s hosts, who felt she had been humiliated by the pat-down in full public view.


It appears, sadly, that the first instinct of Indian officialdom is to swallow insults and to, if possible, insist on not having any semblance of a backbone.


Consider that other countries do not ‘go gentle into that good night’, but they ‘rage, rage’. When China felt that the Nobel Peace Prize was an affront to them, they simply instituted a competing Confucius Peace Prize, laughable though it may be. When the US introduced intrusive fingerprinting rules for visitors, Brazil retaliated in kind. When the US creates non-tariff barriers, others retaliate.


But India, oh, that’s a different matter. There seems to be a built-in level of obsequiousness. Are Indian diplomats eyeing post-retirement sinecures in the World Bank etc.? But why are diplomats from other countries willing to stand up for their national interests?


Perhaps it is because India has never explicitly stated what those national interests are. The late C K Prahalad once wrote an essay on ‘strategic intent’ – that is, a long-range plan with a stretch goal: difficult at the moment, but not impossible if one worked assiduously at it. It is now accepted in business circles that firms that do not have a ‘strategic intent’ are more likely to fail, because there’s nothing like a worthy goal to rally the troops.


The Americans have strategic intent: it was paraphrased some years ago as something to the effect of “having 8% of the world’s population, and enjoying 50% of its resources”. China similarly has a strategic intent: they want to be Numero Uno in everything: wealth, military power, soft power. And what is India’s strategic intent? To be a toady to some great power? Can’t India see that it can be more than a banana republic, it can be a great power itself? It can be the bride, not only the bridesmaid.


On the contrary, I find a supreme lack of self-confidence. I understand that when the Chinese once sent a demarche to the Indian Embassy past midnight – in diplomatic terms a gross insult – instead of waiting till the next day, the woman ambassador showed up at the Chinese Foreign Office at 2 am! The Chinese would have considered that to be kowtowing.


But when a rude Chinese diplomat claimed in Mumbai that India had no business in Arunachal Pradesh, India did not immediately declare him persona non grata and give him 24 hours to clear out of the country. Instead, he was allowed to hang around and make more offensive statements!


A Chinese strongman is due to visit India shortly – and some suggested that India should refrain from the Nobel ceremony in case it would jeopardize the Wen Jiaobao visit! Why this walking on eggshells? The gent is not visiting for India’s benefit. If he doesn’t come, it will make no difference – they will continue the dam on the Brahmaputra, their army’s incursions over the LOC, and proliferation to Pakistan.


There is no consequence to them for misbehaving with India. We should ensure there some pain to China, and others, for insulting India. That gains respect.


Is there a genetic problem among Indians? Are we so used to obsequiousness that it has become the way we think? Perhaps. Going back to the airport security issue, maybe you have seen the lists in Indian airports of those exempt from security checks: the President, the Chief Justice Supreme Court, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and so on…, and, Robert Vadhera!


Yes, this person who holds no public office is the only one specified by name as being exempt from frisking. In all fairness to this gent, I am told he didn’t ask for it, and it was the work of overzealous flunkeys. If that groveling is the prevailing pattern in India, then perhaps it is only fair that Meera Shankar was patted-down.


Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.


823 words, 11 Dec 2010





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