Rich Indians hallucinating about India becoming a superpower have had delivered a much-needed thump on the head courtesy of a study by the London School of Economics, which found that it's doubtful if the country can ever become a superpower.
The whole notion that India is an ''emerging superpower'' has always been ridiculous and whoever first mooted the idea - Bill Clinton or George Bush - during the excess of goodwill that invariably accompanies a state visit, should have been bundled off to a laboratory to have his brain dissected to locate the precise site of the raving lunacy.
Even more preposterous has been the uncritical alacrity with which rich Indians embraced the notion when all they have to do is drive a few kilometres outside the big cities to rural India for a flashback to the 18th century or, even closer to home, to a nearby slum to see disease, hunger and misery that beggars belief.
The LSE study by nine India experts concludes that, despite ''impressive'' achievements, India is unlikely to become a superpower for many reasons including "the increasing gap between the rich and the poor; the trivialisation of the media; the unsustainability, in an environmental sense, of present patterns of resource consumption; the instability and policy incoherence caused by multi-party coalition governments''.
The study adds: "India still faces major developmental challenges. The still-entrenched divisions of caste structure are being compounded by the emergence of new inequalities of wealth stemming from India's economic success.''
These inequalities take your breath away. While the rich consume luxury goods and the middle class buys fancy cars and gadgets and holidays in Bangkok, they blind themselves to the reality for 700 million or so immiserated Indians. In their vainglorious dinner-table talk about ''superpower'' status, they forget that a country that cannot meet a poor person's most basic needs - enough food, clean drinking water, and electricity - has no business aspiring to superpower status.
One has always heard that Indians have traditionally lacked a certain respect for the facts but this wilful disregard of reality is disturbing. Affluent Indians have bought the superpower fantasy not just because of a contempt for the facts, but from pride and vanity and a tendency to get all puffed up the moment the country manages any achievement.
So an obscure international award for some Indian film, a bronze medal in a sport that no one watches, an Indian company's takeover of a foreign company, or an Indian kid topping a maths exam in the US, are all trumpeted as evidence that India has conquered the world.
This is the reality: about 400 million Indians have no electricity; India has more mobile phones than toilets; millions of children are not in school; most cities have no sewage treatment systems; no major city has a continuous water supply; disease is rampant; infrastructure is pitiful; and a UNICEF report released this month says there is acute malnutrition and hunger among the urban poor, with 54 per cent more infants dying from among the urban poor than from the urban non-poor. Another UNICEF report found that 93 million Indians live in urban slums, on pavements and construction sites.
Yet should anyone plead that the poor have been left behind they will be subject to heated criticism. It hurts the pride of Indians to be reminded of the country's poverty. But the existence of poverty itself does not hurt their pride.
Economic growth rates of about 8-9 per cent over the past few years have been justifiably praiseworthy. But the benefits of this growth have been confined to the middle class and the rich.
The poor still do not have homes, basic sanitation, decent schools or nutritious food. As a young girl in American author Katherine Boo's much-acclaimed new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai slum, says: "We try so many things but the world doesn't move in our favour."
Middle-class Indians need to read Boo's book about life in a rat-infested hovel, near a sewage lake, with rampant dengue fever, malaria and tuberculosis, with scraps for meals, a single toilet for 100 families and then try claiming that India is becoming a superpower. There are many criteria for defining a superpower, but for India an extra one should be added. Let no one utter the world ''superpower'' till every Indian family has a toilet in their home.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.(NT)