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Things India Can Teach the U.S.

Naveen Sunkavally

Recent coverage of the elections in India in newspapers such as The New York Times has left me a bit disappointed. Western journalism as a whole has a tendency to portray "third-world" countries as illiterate, starving, and extremely corrupt, and the coverage of the Indian elections seems to have provided no exception to the rule.

For example, one photo caption from a March 1 Times story ["Front-Runner in India is Deep Doubt"] that is typical of this Western bias reads: "In Jaipur, in northwest India, Muslim children who do not attend school spend much of their time in the streets." Another caption for the same story reads, "Cows and other animals vie with motor scooters and bicycles on the capital's crowded streets." The story then details India's "governmental failure to deal effectively with poverty, illiteracy, and other social problems," while a later story on March 15 describes the political drama in India as "tinged with farce."

It is not so much the validity of these statements that bothers me as much as it is the Times' condescending attitude and refusal to highlight problems of similar magnitude that exist within the United States. It is true that India has had three governments since 1996 that have collapsed within a year, and it is true that corruption and infighting are much more prominent there than in the United States, but there are also some positive characteristics that India has which the United States does not.

For one thing, Indian democracy is far ahead of the United States with regard to the participation of women. India has already elected one women prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, has already risen to become the leader of India's Congress Party. How conceivable is it that in the next ten years America will elect a women to the highest post in the country? And how conceivable is it that America will elect a minority woman (as Sonia Gandhi is in India) to one of the highest posts in the country?

Indian educational standards are also far ahead of those in America. It may be true that that there are more illiterate people in India than there are in the United States, but it is also true that those who receive a education in India are far better trained than students in America. A recent study called the "Third International Mathematics and Science Study" ranked America dead last in physics and advanced mathematics.

In contrast, students in India are constantly challenged. They do not, like U.S. students, go through a mind-numbing process in which they learn virtually the same basic-level arithmetic skills from third to eighth grade. In reality, how much did you learn between the third and eighth grades aside from basic multiplication and addition? Fractions, algebra, negative numbers, decimals, maybe even some trigonometry?

Commentators also often fail to take into account that India is a far younger democracy than America is: While America celebrated its bicentennial more than two decades ago, India is just now reaching its fiftieth anniversary. For example, American newspapers always take ample opportunity to point out that race relations are not very good in India. They point out that the Bharatiya Janata Party, now the leader of India's government, advocates the supremacy of of India's Hindu majority over the Muslim minority, and that the caste system still pits the poor against the rich.

These statements are mostly true and are worth making, but it is also worth noting that America, fifty years after its independence, was still subjugating blacks and denying them the same rights accorded to whites. Furthermore, recent studies show that the gap between rich and the poor in the United States has greatly increased over the last decade.

India, though it may be behind the United States right now, is moving forward more quickly than the United States ever has. If it continues along its present path, India, despite the persistent poverty, starvation, and racial strife, has a bright future. Western journalists should take notice.