Monday, January 22, 2007

Big Brother row points to mature India

White English people are ignorant stupid racists.

It's a sweeping, inaccurate generalisation but it's the impression that might have been left in the minds of millions of people in India who last week watched one of their own being, to use the English vernacular, "slagged off" mercilessly on British TV.

Contrary to much of the reporting around the world Shilpa Shetty is not a major Bollywood star. If she was she would not have shared a stage with the British B-grade celebrities also stuck inside the Big Brother House.

The programme makers wouldn't have been able to afford her pay cheque. But while she may not have been the darling of the big screen in India before she entered the reality show, she'll emerge, regardless of the means of her exit as a darling of the Indian middle class.


There has been a palpable sense of pride with the way she has dealt with what is widely seen here as racist, foul-mouthed onslaughts from her clearly under-educated, boorish English companions.

Ms Goody articulates in all her crassness the fact that your average English speaking Indian is a lot better educated than your average English person

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But more interestingly the incident has also shown that India, contrary to the fears of British diplomats, has become comfortable enough with its position in the world to see things like the Big Brother row in perspective.

The Indian media has had a feeding frenzy on this story. It's dominated the headlines and been wall-to-wall across the dozens of new TV news channels that have sprung up over the last few years.

What there hasn't been is a knee jerk xenophobia against the British, in response to an Indian woman being abused by descendants of the old Raj.

For many years India had a real chip on its shoulder about the UK. The injustices of the colonial era were never far from the surface. Given an opportunity Indian leaders would fall over themselves to take a dig at the British for an easy bit of popular press.

The best example of this was when the then Prime Minister IK Gujral publicly called the UK a "third rate" country in petulant response to a perceived slight from the British entourage out for the 50th anniversary of India's independence.

Future greatness

I'm sure that if the Big Brother controversy had been played out then, the reaction of the Indian media would have been much more akin to the kind of aggressive nationalism displayed by the British tabloids against the French.

But as India this year prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary of independent rule one thing seems to be clear.

India has stopped looking over its shoulder. It no longer views itself through the prism of its colonial past.

The "Britishers" are no longer the bogeymen they used to be because India is no longer suffering from the inferiority complex it used to have. India no longer feels the need to dwell on past injustices because it's too busy getting ready for what many predict will be its future greatness.

There has been outrage here at the treatment of Shilpa Shetty. But there has also been acknowledgement that there has been equal outrage in the UK from brown, black and white people alike.

The condemnation by Britain's political class from the prime minister down has received the same attention as the comments from the Indian government. The only exception to this measured response were the half dozen chaps in Bihar who found their 15 minutes of fame by burning a rather bad effigy of the Channel Four executives.

But no-one in India is going to claim that the actions of a few underemployed Biharis, which was recycled endlessly on TV around the world, represents the rest of the nation.

So despite the shrill cry from the British media, there was never any chance that this was going to become a diplomatic incident during the visit of Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown.

His entourage were probably having kittens when the media started asking him about this story but the reality is that today's Indian leadership is much more interested in solidifying its place in the international pecking order than scoring cheap points off the likely next British prime minister.

Better educated

One English commentator noted after the row erupted that "Shilpa Shetty has taken the supposed British virtues of civility, articulacy, reserve and having a stiff upper lip and shown that.. we lack them".

That's not all India does better than the UK these days. In terms of their celebrity status Shilpa and her nemesis Jade Goody are almost on a par.

But taken as a snap shot of like-for-like India's B-grade celebrities are clearly better educated, better mannered and frankly speak better English than their UK counterparts.

'Ms Goody has earned the ire of many in the UK for trashing its reputation across the world.
Unfortunately for the UK it's not just Indian celebrities. British companies have been outsourcing their customer service centres, software departments, biotechnology labs etc to the subcontinent for years now.

They did so because they recognised a huge pool of well-educated, English-speaking, middle-class people that could do the job not only cheaper than the folks back home, but often better.

Jade Goody clearly believed that her behaviour would be tolerated by the British public watching outside. She was wrong.

Ms Goody has earned the ire of many in the UK for trashing its reputation across the world. Her antics also over-shadowed Mr Brown's trip here.

But long term she may have helped Mr Brown make a fairly important point to the British public.

Gordon Brown had never set foot in India before last week. But he already knew the challenges its huge pool of young people posed to the UK economy. He outlined the challenges in his annual economic review late last year.

Ms Goody articulates in her crassness the fact that your average English-speaking Indian (most of whom have been through private schooling) is a lot better educated than your average English person. And by the way there are probably more than 100 million of them.

If you're British then Shilpa Shetty in all her well-mannered educated politeness is a lot more scary that Jade Goody could ever hope to be.
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