North vs South
By Vir Sanghvi, Host of India Talk show on NDTV

Two years ago, I got into a conversation with a Chinese man I bumped into at a shop in Singapore. In the manner of strangers everywhere who search for nice things to say about each other, I complimented him on the cleanliness and tourist-friendliness of Singapore. And he, in turn, told me how much he loved Indian cinema, even though he couldn't understand the language. He was particularly impressed, he said, by our movie superstar. Did I think that he would enter politics? And how did one pronounce the superstar's name, anyway?

The Amitabh Bachchan conversation (along with the Bollywood lecture) is pretty much a staple of all contacts between Indians and friendly foreigners. So I was about to tell him how I didn't think that Amitabh would ever join politics again when I noticed that my new friend was struggling to pronounce the superstar's name.

"Raj....Rudge.... Is it Rajni Kaanth?" he asked.


I was dumbfounded.

But no, the man meant Rajnikant. He had no real knowledge of Bollywood at all. The only Indian films he knew were made in Madras. And Rajnikant was the only star he recognised.

At the time, I put it down to the high proportion of Tamils among the Indian population of Singapore. Of course, the man only knew South Indian cinema, I thought to myself. That's because he lives in Singapore.

But over the last year I've begun to wonder about how much the reference points for people who look at India from abroad are changing. In Japan, I was astonished to discover that they too were crazy about Rajnikant. The only Indian cinema that had a cult following was South Indian cinema.

And it isn't just films. If you go to England and talk to people about coming to India on holiday, they won't want to see the Taj. They'll have no interest in the palaces of Rajasthan. They'll talk about Goa. And if they want a trendy holiday, they'll ask about Kerala.

In China, I discovered that while the Chinese - like most East Asians - sneer at India and our achievements, they suddenly become respectful when the subject of information technology (IT) is raised. They may have no respect for New Delhi. But they all admire Bangalore.

Even the Bollywood craze that swept England last year (Bombay Dreams, the Selfridges promotion etc.) had very little to do with North India. Bollywood is neither North nor South India (as Javed Akhtar says, it is an Indian state in its own right), but Bombay Dreams was based on the music of A. R. Rahman and most of the tunes had first been featured in South Indian movies.

I thought of all this on the plane to Bangalore last week. I had been invited by Unmeelan, the cultural club at Infosys, to moderate a discussion on the North-South divide and I wondered if the balance had now finally changed in the South's favor.

On a previous trip to Bangalore, the Chief Financial Officer of Infosys had shown me an astonishing statistic. If you look at the rate of growth of the four Southern States - Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra - he said, and compare it to the rest of Asia, you'll find that South India actually outperforms most of the so-called South East Asian tigers. The trouble with the same statistic for the rest of India, he pointed out, was that the economic sluggishness of North India dragged it down.

Clearly, he had a point. And at least some North Indians are beginning to learn that lesson. Two weeks ago, in Chandigarh, Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab, told me that the role models for North Indian Chief Ministers needed to be people like S.M. Krishna and Chandrababu Naidu who had recognized the importance of knowledge-based industries. Punjab, he said, had lost out by focusing on agriculture for far too long.

Amarinder has persuaded Dr Y. S. Rajan, the scientist who is probably best-known as President Abdul Kalam's pal, to shift to Chandigarh to make Punjabis more techno-savvy. And Rajan, in turn, gave me another figure: something like 80 per cent of all technical institutes of learning in India, he said, are located south of the Vindhyas.

At the Infosys discussion, many of the same issues cropped up. The South Indians in the audience were proud of their politicians (though this was perhaps, less true of the Tamilians) and kept contrasting Chandrababu and Krishna with Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav.

It was the South that was showing the way, they said. The North was still obsessed with caste, with vote-bank politics and with cheap populism.

This theme was echoed by one of the participants in the discussion, the brilliant historian and essayist Ramchandra Guha, who said that politics exemplified the difference: "Chandrababu says, 'if elected, I will turn my state into another Singapore', but when a new Chief Minister is elected in UP, all he says is 'I'll build a Ram Temple'."

There was anger, too, at the manner in which Hindi has been thrust on the South. Even Javed Akhtar, perhaps the greatest scriptwriter Hindi cinema has ever seen, said that English, not Hindi, should be India's link language.

Overall, there was no doubt that when the South Indians in the audience talked about North India, they meant UP and Bihar, not, say, Punjab or Madhya Pradesh. Nobody had anything bad to say about Amarinder, Sheila Dixit or Digvijay Singh. Equally, nobody had anything good to say about Mayawati, Mulayam or Laloo.

This, in turn, led to questions that came up again and again: when UP and Bihar send the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha, what hope is there for Indian politics? Won't there always be a disconnect between the professionals who are taking India forward and likes of Mayawati who are only interested in playing the caste card? Wasn't it significant, somebody else asked, that the Ayodhya movement had failed to generate any excitement outside of the Hindi belt? (This is not entirely accurate. Hindutva works well in Gujarat).

I'm not sure that there are many good answers to these questions. Over the last decade, I've observed a growing disdain for electoral democracy among the middle classes who complain that vote-bank politics will always ensure that India is ruled by cow-belt politicians who frame their appeals in terms of religion or caste. Judging by the Bangalore discussion, this disdain is felt even more strongly in the South where they don't care about all the issues that dominate national politics these days: should there be a temple at Ayodhya? Can dalits get along with an upper caste party in UP? Why should Muslims be allowed four wives? Let's ban cow-slaughter completely. None of this interests the South.

Of course, all the claims made about the South's successful 'techies' are not always valid. As my friend Chandan Mitra - another participant in the discussion - pointed out, the North is not quite as backward as the South likes to think it is. The second biggest IT center in India after Bangalore is not Hyderabad, but the National Capital Region. Small North Indian states like Himachal have performed remarkably well on many parameters. And despite Javed's preference for English as a link language, Hindi has penetrated the South.

Nor are the North and South two opposing monoliths. A large proportion of the Infosys employees who took part in the discussion were, themselves, North Indians who had chosen to work in Bangalore. And even when the women who disdained the North spoke, they did so in salwar-kameezes.

But it is hard to shake the feeling that India has changed in two very different ways over the last 15 years. On the one hand, the South has captured the world's imagination and has had the sense and/or the good fortune to focus on such areas as IT where India has the potential to be a global leader.

On the other hand, the North seems sometimes to have lost the plot. After the end of the Rajiv Gandhi government, North Indian politics seems to be less and less about the things that matter and more and more about caste coalitions, about redressing historical wrongs, about disputes over medieval mosques, about the perceived threat from Pakistan and about ensuring that politicians get as rich as they can as quickly as possible. The twin legacies of Mandal and mandir have ensured the seemingly permanent backwardness of the North.

Sadly, it is a divide that grows with each passing day. And at this rate, the South will soon leave the North far behind.