07/31/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

The Perennial Underachiever

I was recently reading an article that talked about how Indians have gone up in arms over the portrayal of our country and its people. It started with the Time magazine cover which pictures Manmohan Singh with the caption "underachiever." No big deal, right? I mean, it is an independent press doing what it is supposed to do -- expressing it's independent opinion. After his heroics in the early '90s, his stint as Prime Minister has largely been about failures and an inability to get things done (Read: Failed foreign investment in retail, Spectrum Licensing Scandal, Retroactive tax issue, Steep ... And the list goes on).

So, was Time wrong? Not really; if anything it displayed the power of an independent media, something that is lacking in India today. Rather than focus on the contents of the article (which, to be honest were very truthful), the entire country, including our own journalists went into an uproar about the cover. This is blasphemy! How could they dare say such a thing! Hours of television time and columns of newsprint were dedicated to rebuffing the claim, not to mention the PM's henchmen coming out in support of their leader. I wonder how many of them actually read the article. A few days later, the Outlook put on its cover the picture of U.S. President Barack Obama with a caption which read, you guessed it, The Underachiever! I don't believe there was even a peep, let alone a clamour from the U.S. media about the issue. Now I know politics is a hard job, and it is not possible to please everyone, but in both instances, I believe the magazines were right. If nothing else, they were entitled to express their opinions, which they did.

A similar scenario played out when Oprah Winfrey's portrayal of India in her show Oprah's Next Chapter aired on TV. Her focus on poverty, saris, slums and Bollywood did not go down well with a lot of Indians. Granted, I had a similar feeling when I first watched Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Then I thought to myself, "Who am I kidding? Yes, this is not how I would like my country to be viewed on the international stage, but it is a fact. It is what it is, to put it colloquially." The reaction to Oprah's show was captured in the Wall Street Journal's write-up titled 'India Gives Oprah Thumbs Down'.

OK, so the world has certain stereotypes of our country; what's wrong with that? We have the same of others; and we definitely enjoy a good laugh when those stereotypes are highlighted to us. When I was very young, I was often told that 'if you can crack a joke at someone's expense, you must also learn to be able to take a joke and laugh at yourself.' As the saying goes, 'Learn to laugh at yourself before you learn to laugh at others.' The fact of the matter is that stereotypes are typically not jokes, but statements or observations based on fact and reality and the reason it pricks is because the truth hurts. And even if they are put forth with a sense of humor behind them, we have not learnt to laugh at ourselves. We must either learn to accept these truths about ourselves (e.g. eating with our fingers -- I do it too and I'm not ashamed of it), or change the perception altogether by behaving in the way we want the world to view us. If people refer to cows on the streets and India being a poor country, well, they aren't fibbing. Just take a drive through certain parts of India's biggest and you'll realize that they aren't!

Why do we as Indians get hung up on these trivial issues (it seems more so than others)? Why does our need to be accepted and portrayed in a good light all the time matter so much? Yes, we are the world's second most populous country, but other than that, what is our claim to fame (let's not go back to the old age and our contribution of the zero to mathematics, etc.)? Look at our neighbors and what they have achieved in the last decade or so... We're not even close! And they don't go up in arms about news reports; they just ignore them. If it bothers us so much, why don't we try to fix it rather than raise a ruckus about it? We are definitely insecure, but are we also incapable of doing anything about it?

It reminds me of something the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, "You'll never reach your destination if you stop to throw stones at every dog that barks." I wonder if too many stoppages along the way has been the prime reason as to why we have never really achieved our true potential!