Times of India, July 31, 2005
The only discordant note in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s otherwise triumphant trip to the US was his pleading for a permanent seat in the Security Council. I have never been comfortable with this unseemly campaign. Hankering after superpower status is a sign of our status anxiety and lack of self-confidence. Besides, a seat should never be a national goal. It is like a medal in a race; the goal is to win the race; the medal is only a by-product. So, let us focus on genuine achievements like building a prosperous and compassionate society. Let us reform vigorously, lift the poor, improve governance, and our status will change on its own.
Manmohan Singh's gracious speech at Oxford, on the other hand, showed self-assurance (reflecting the nation's growing confidence) as he gave Britain credit for bequeathing us wonderful liberal institutions. Hence, the carping of Left academics was astonishing. I have long admired Irfan Habib and Partha Chatterjee — their writings have meant so much to my education. I can only attribute their criticism to the Left's own status anxiety after Communism's fall, which was also on display in its extraordinary cheek to advise the PM not to sell out India to America. But then, good manners have never been the Left's strong suit.
Anxiety about one's status is understandable. Like nations, all human beings feel a secret and powerful need to be noticed. It hurts when we are ignored. If people praise us we feel important; when they avoid us we feel worthless. The attention of others matter because we are uncertain of our own worth. We fear that we might end up a 'nobody', and want desperately to be 'somebody'. "Our sense of identity is held hostage to the opinion of others", says Alain de Botton in a superb book, Status Anxiety. We may not admit it, but the truth is we all seek to be loved by the world.
When we are babies, we are loved whether we burp or scream or break our toys. But this idyllic state changes as we grow up, and are soon surrounded by snobs who have great capacity for inflicting pain. Snobs are social climbers, dedicated to flattering the influential and ignoring the humble. Very rarely have I come across someone who was immune to status blues. A notable exception was the noble and penniless Fanny Price, Jane Austen's heroine in Mansfield Park. Most of us are like Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, who suffers from extreme anxiety at Yudhishthira's grand celebration to confirm his suzerainty. He feels diminished by his cousin's rise in the world. He is envious by his host's magical palace. Without sycophants around him, suddenly he feels alone. Just one amongst many illustrious guests, he loses all confidence.
This is not how we would want our children to grow up as citizens of a confident, proud nation. Fanny Price rather than Duryodhana ought to be our model of behaviour. We should pursue our goals single-mindedly, with a quiet confidence, without worrying so much about what others think. My aunt used to say, "You'll waste a lot less time worrying about what others think of you if only you realised how seldom they do." Of course, we deserve a permanent seat on the Security Council, but at this stage of nation building, this should not be our priority. Let us first put our own house in order. Let us vigorously reform our economy, lift our economy's growth rate, raise the poor, and fix the depressing state of governance. This is what will eventually make us a superpower and worthy of the coveted seat.