Why do Europeans take a dim view of India’s international role?

Views of India remain positive, but have taken a “somewhat negative turn” in 2008

This year’s poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org finds that while international opinion of India is positive overall, average positive views have declined from 41% to 39%, while negative views have increased from 30% to 33%. Among the 21 countries polled, 12 (which includes India itself) had predominantly positive views, six had predominantly negative views, and in three, opinions were divided.

Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org
Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org

People in Western countries, Africa, Asia and South America generally had positive views, while those in Islamic countries didn’t. This is not unexpected—democracy, Anglophony and traditional “third world” ties would account for the popularity.

But the exceptions to these trends are interesting. The Philippines is the only non-Islamic Asian countries to share a predominantly negative view, and Indonesia is the only Islamic country to have a predominantly positive view. Among Western countries, four major continental European countries—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—see India’s role as predominantly negative.

The mystery of the unimpressed Filipinos might be due to the unpopularity of local ethnic Indians in the Philippines. That’s because they have been in the moneylending business, and the exorbitant rates of interest they charge for unsecured personal loans don’t endear them to the people. Their unpopularity might be rubbing off on India. (This explanation came from one of Pragati’s editorial advisors at a recent lunch. Emperical evidence is awaited)

Cultural links between India and Indonesia have been strong, causing the democratic country with the world’s largest Islamic population to have a net positive view of the democratic country with the second largest. So that’s explained.

But whatever happened to the Europeans? The negative swing has been 12% to 20% in the four major European countries. The poll was conducted in late-November/early-December 2008, after the global economic crisis had set in, and after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. So it might be that a combination of the anxiety over the ‘rise of China and India’, the impasse at the WTO’s Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and economic worries caused Europeans to feel this way. John Pomfret attributes this to “an element of racism” in the context of China’s unpopularity (via The Peking Duck), a factor that might apply in India’s case as well. From the geopolitical angle, the US-India nuclear deal might have also contributed to the negative perception. Indians, however, continue to have a predominantly positive view of the EU.

As compared to the 2007 survey (see the Acorn’s March 2007 post), more Indians take a positive view of India’s role in the world. Around one in two persons, or 51% feel India’s role is positive, up from 47% two years ago. Only 7% have a negative view, down from 10% in the 2007 survey. That’s still lower than the Chinese, a whopping 92% of who are convinced that their country is playing a positive role. Whatever others might think of them, that is something.

Related Post: India is big in Afghanistan

33 thoughts on “Why do Europeans take a dim view of India’s international role?”

  1. Surprised to see that Europeans increasingly have negative views of India’s role! Apart from the reasons you suggested, may be the sample size of 500 per country is too less ?

    Interestingly, they say: “China has the largest number of all countries (39%, up from 30%) saying Pakistan’s influence in the world is mainly positive” ! Positive views of Pakistan have grown in China and the United Kingdom, though the overall view of its influence is still negative.

  2. Interesting, but do we have an idea on the nationality/ethnicity of the person who answered this survey? the most positive views are in US, UK, Canada, etc – cannot the presence of a large number of indians there (who might have answered this or no, swung the vote in our favour?) Even if the PIO/NRIs dint vote, like you mentioned, our expatriate population is highest in the countries where we’re positively viewed, right – but obviously doesnt explain everything..

  3. I’ve been living in Spain for the last four years and work in the financial sector. Among the young people here, India enjoys tremendous popularity. All things Indian from Ayurveda, Yoga, Meditation, Reki, to Indian clothing and now even Indian food, is all quite popular among the alternative-left crowd. Bollywood is playing a big role in popularizing India, promoting our vibrant culture to the West. But those who jump onto these things would mainly classify as the “left-wing” crowd, semi-hippy, whose dream in life is to one day be able to visit India.

    However, the business/working crowd isn’t so positive about India. Remember the Mittal takeover of Arcelor? I met with some highly protectionist people who were against the transaction as it endangered “European pride.” Also, I had the opportunity to work in a predominantly French environment, and I can tell you that the French don’t hide their contempt for anything non-French, let alone a quickly progressing nation like India. Racism, like it or not, abounds here. After being here for four years and previously living in the US for five, I’ve learned that no matter how progressive Europe tries to become, it will never compare to the US. Professionally one can only grow if they are connected to the right people, your skills don’t matter. In the business world in Spain, those Spaniards progress who have connections. In France its the same I assume and so on. These nations are having a hard time keeping up with globalization, and it shows. They want to be able to invest in India with an open hand, but deny the same rights to Asian/Indian firms.

    I am not surprised also that France views India this way. One of my French colleagues really doesn’t hide his contempt for India; each time it is mentioned, he literally cringes, makes a face, and then if I happen to be alone with him, pass negative comments on things like Caste System, etc. More recently, when I was reading the news, during the three days of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, let me tell you what my French colleague’s response was: “But don’t this kind of attacks happen all the time in India?”

    Needless to say, living a mere 3 hours away from the French border, I’ve never been there, neither do I plan on it.

  4. “But whatever happened to the Europeans? The negative swing has been 12% to 20% in the four major European countries.”

    —The reason is – Orrisa’s ethnic disturbance misconstrued & superimposed as communal riots… by the Indian press.

  5. The mystery of the unimpressed Filipinos might be due to the unpopularity of local ethnic Indians in the Philippines.

    Perhaps though Indians as businessmen and traders were pretty unpopular in Ghana as well due to similar reasons and the perceived racism of Indians towards Black Africans (which to be fair was a fairly accurate representation). Yet, India is very popular in Ghana and Nigeria as the poll shows. Partly this is due to the massive ITEC training programmes that gives a lot of the technical professions a favourable view of India, partly due to traditional links through NAM, where India took many of these countries seriously long before others did at a purly formal level and partly because of assistance rendered during the indepedence movements and early years of postcolonialism.

    In Europe it is difficult to say why there is such a divergence – it is in anycase confined to Continental Europe; the UK as you can see has a very favourable opinion as does Russia for obvious historic reasons. Having a large NRI population helps as well. India’s soft power is huge also, specially in Anglo-Saxon countries where Indian writers, films, food and culture are very popular. China for a change, is far behind in this sphere. Europeans I would guess dislike expansionary or ascendant powers and countries that will increasingly use military power to assert themselves on the world stage. They never liked the Americans doing this but swallowed it because of the Soviets, after the Berlin wall came down and Bush II came in this resentment has flowered, only slightly mitigated by Obamania.

    India is quite popular amongst Eastern European countries from the small anecdotal evidence I have come across; people from Slavic have fond attitudes towards India to a fair degree, why this is I am not sure.

  6. @etlamatey,

    Germans, French, Italians and Spaniards poll lower than Indians. What are you referring to?


    You observations square with my experience. They are happy with a poor exotic country, but not a emerging power. Yes, French stuff is overrated.

  7. I’ve learned that no matter how progressive Europe tries to become, it will never compare to the US.

    You can’t compare Europe to the US or the other neo-European countries; it isn’t an immigrant society and has a hard time dealing with the integration of immigrants. That said the US has its own race problems. Europe however has another problem which is a demographic one – current population growth rates are so slow that there iwll be a crisis in social security and supporting the retired population. Unless Europe increases its birth rate (unlikely) it has to allow immigration if it doesn’t want to collapse.

    As for the French, as the American writer Art Buchwald said about living in France and how he dealt with French hostility “Look the French don’t even like each other, so how can you expect them to like those who aren’t even French!”.

  8. @ Namrata

    Also that French colleague of yours sounds like a right wanker – you need to smack some sense into him, hard!!!

  9. @Ranjith, Vivek, Namrata, etlamatey, and other who are surprised:
    Yeah, I understand this very well. It is called “slumdog effect”. Now, after the great circus called oscars, expect it to dip faster. In case you are still confused what it means, the bottomline of this effect is: You ignore the riots in Paris, Jihad from Londonistan, Guantanamo in US and think of plush lawns in California, Eiffel tower in Paris, Big Ben in London. Whereas when you imagine India you think slumdogs of Mumbai, riots in Orissa, taliban in Mangalore and ignore the Taj Mahal in Agra, Meenakshi temple in TN, or the tech/IT/telecom sectors, etc …
    Plus, I bet these surveys were mainly done across the “bubba” population in alabama (US) or other like minded people across the atlantic. This is very much like the pre-poll surveys done in Gujarat and data analysed by expert psephologists and jholawalas (no points for guessing which party wins in such surveys).

    So, don’t be too surprised by this and get a heart attack!

  10. > Europe however has another problem which is a demographic one – current population growth rates are so slow that there iwll be a crisis in social security and supporting the retired population.

    You forgot the other demographic problem — arabisation.

  11. recently jon stewart asked nandan nilekanani on the daily show ‘are you guys going to be our next overlord?”. Maybe the Europeans feel the same way. Europe is dying demographically (pat buchanan ‘the death of the west’) and like someone here said, Europeans are having a hard time keeping up with globalization, or as tom friedman calls it ‘a senior home with turkish nurses’.

    Can you blame the europeans for feeling contempt for a country being showcased by ‘slumdog millionaire’ and a hostile India-hindu hating media being the possible global overlord?

  12. Nitin,

    Followed the link in the blog, and just found this:

    The margin of error per country ranges from +/-3.3 to 4.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

    Given this margin of error, how justified is the conclusion

    Views of India have taken a somewhat negative turn in the past year

    when the avg. negative reviews increased from “33%, up from 30%” and the avg. positive reviews decreased from “39%, down from 41%”

    In the same section, the report goes on to say:The most marked improvement in attitudes about India’s influence occurred in the United Kingdom, with positive views increasingly dramatically (59%, up from 34%) and negative views dropping sharply (24%, down from 56%).

    Either the British are extremely fickle minded, or the samples being compared are radically different. In either case, I am beginning to doubt
    if these findings are even worth analyzing…

    Unless, of course, it’s all part of April Fools Day 🙂

  13. photonman,

    Such surveys must be taken with a little pinch of salt. I don’t think these surveys are something you can use to make serious decisions or policies. They do, however, give you a feel for what people think. And to the extent they spur thinking into why the surveyed people might be thinking as they are, they are useful.

    No, this is not the April Fool’s joke.

  14. @Nitin,

    It goes without saying that people’s perceptions are important to formulate policy. Surveys are the only practical way of gathering such information.

    My complaint was not about surveys per se, but this particular survey you cite.

    IMO the survey you cite makes statistically erroneous conclusions from its data. For example, there is something fishy about the data pertaining to British views on India, and the author appears to have completely ignored this problem.

  15. There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

    Did anybody regress the impact of these surveys on likability of nations. For instance, I had a mild dislike of French pompousness; now I hate them.

  16. You forgot the other demographic problem — arabisation.

    Hardly a Eruopean problem; at most a French one. I think Arabisation has been overblown mostly by the rabid rightwing media and those who have made a career out of pedling Islamo-hysterics. The real problem is that under their current social setup, countries like France can’t absorb 2nd/3rd generation immigrants effectively into the job market or give them effective representation. They are creating an ethnic underclass in the banlieus that will come back to haunt them; rather like what has happened with African-Americans in the US really.

  17. @ Conrad Barwa

    Sense will smack itself into the poor dude very soon. There are SO MANY of his kind, honestly, they’re not worth driving sense into. It would be a favour to them. Let them wake up and smell the coffee on their own. His country has a major problem with Arab immigration and a very low birthrate. They are going to go down with their own weight. Like someone else mentioned, Europe is heading towards Eurabia and before we reach 2040, several Euro countries will be majority Arab/Muslim. This guy, who currently criticizes most things Spanish while living and earning his daily bread in Spain, will realize when he is rendered unemployed and goes back to France and his peers there refuse to recognize his work-ex in Spain. I wouldn’t be surprised. France and other heavily immigrated Euro countries are in great trouble. Thats why they see a rising superpower like India in negative light. India needs a strong leader at its helm that doesn’t rely on the world’s perceptions of it, and works only for the Indian National Interest. No more looking at the US and Europe to get their approval. They are always going to act against us; which should explain the US’ continued support of Pakistan, Britain and Norway’s continued support of the LTTE…etc. Indians should understand that a global leader has no friends. If Europeans dislike India, they outright hate the US.

  18. Namrata – you are a more patient man than me! I would not be so tolerant; I dislike the usual mastubatory wallowing in jingoism that so many of our middle classes seem to be addicted to; drooling over nominal growth rates, going nuclear and whining about anything that upsets their fantasy of a super-India like Slumdog Millionaire – I but I don’t take any kind of condescending shit from anyone who clearly doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about – like the guy you mentioned at work. We aren’t the only children of some princely family who can’t take any criticism and needs the ego to be massaged on a regular basis but any criticism that is made should be sensible and informed. My grandparents didn’t rot in British jails so that decades later prats like these could talk crap about our country.

    I would only differ with you on a couple of points. Guys like these will rarely learn by themselves unless they are literally forced to; even if events turn out the the way you say for him – all they will do is find someone else to blame. This is what is happening all over Europe now. If they were smart enought to learn from their experience, he wouldn’t make such dumb comments in the first place. Some people are born with good sense, some acquire it over time and some need it to be smacked into them – this guys seems like one of the latter. I don’t see why you have to sit and ‘cringe’ and take this guys’ shit really. What he is doing is just a form of workplace bullying and coded racism and these people always crumble when someone stands up to them.

    Lastly, I don’t think we should be relying on ‘strong leaders’ etc. a failure in our thinking has always been that we are waiting for someone to deliver us or provide leadership from the top. Given the current state of our elites, this is not going to happen for a long time; we need to stand up for ourselves and those of us who are abroad are in a very real sense ambassadors for our country. And no ambassador will, or should, put up with his country being deliberately and consistently insulted.

  19. We Indians were busy sucking up to the USA. The impression on USA in all these four European countries during the reign of Bush was overwhelmingly negative. A part of that got rubbed off to their image on India.

    India should remain tactically aligned with the European Union. Like India, the EU is a culturally diverse federation with several ethnic groups united by common values in liberalism and democracy.

    It doesn’t get any closer than that.

  20. Conrad, you’re right – Indians abroad are ambassadors for India. I am a proud Indian and I display my nationality and culture on my sleeve. That guy was jealous and he let it be known in several instances. Don’t worry I did screw his French-ness on SEVERAL occassions. I have snubbed him on his low English-language skills, on his lack of knowledge about Asian and global issues and the general backward trend of the French economy. He once questioned me on the Kandhamal “persecution of Christians” and I provided him with a detailed account of the Christian’s misdeeds and Swami Laxminananda’s murder by the Church and the careful omission of those events in the manipulated and christian owned MSM. I have questioned him on the French police’s persecution of Africans, where he was left speechless. What I meant by sense smacking itself into him was that although he is much less vocal compared to the past, I know he still harbours those thoughts. And sense will drive itself into him, as in, he will fall and then see that his myopic French point of view will not take him far.

  21. @namrata,

    Way to go girl! All this sensitiveness and sophistication has been overrated. Standing proud and standing firm never hurts. We never got where we did, as a nation or as individuals, due to their kindness, sympathy or pleasure.

  22. No we didnt! By the way, French wine, cheese and all their other products are overrated. Don’t buy them. Spanish wine and cheese is way better.
    The Spaniards cannot stand the French either. I boycotted French goods a long time ago; I suggest all Indians do the same!

  23. As an Indian living in Germany for last 7 years now, I would disagree with some comments above, viz. those attributing the negative views to racism. On the other hand, your views come dangerously close to being racist, if you take the behavior/views of one person and apply it to a whole nation.

    Agreed – when it comes to sensitive issues like outsourcing or nuclear arms or illegal immigration, Germans tend to get sensitive, for various reasons. But then who isn’t sensitive about something or the other? Can we be accused of being racist towards the Chinese, just because we don’t like the way they do business or run their foreign policy? Can we be accused to being racist towards Bangladeshis, who illegally immigrate to India?

    Older Germans used to the economic wonders of the 1970s and 80s resist the whole globalization principle. However, the younger Germans are open as ever to the new challenges. Secondly, those who have traveled around the world (and Germans travel a lot)tend to be more tolerant about other cultures and people. After the bitter memories of WW II, it is a social stigma to even sound racist, however biased their thoughts are (I do not deny that there is a very small percentage of neo-Nazis around – but they are social outcasts)

    I have limited experience with other Europeans, but without exception I have never encountered racism – what I have encountered is quirky behavior, people having a bad day, impolite people, people not used to dealing with foreigners – I accept all those because that is what diversity is all about – and I find such people in India as well. French will be French, Germans will be Germans, and Indians will be Indians. I made a conscious choice to stay in Europe, instead of going to US – I can identify myself with the diversity of cultures and people, which I find very similar to India. And I have never regretted that decision.

  24. namrata, i, too, work in finance, but in new york. and whenever i come across a boorish french national, i start praising life in america and watch her/him turn all shades of green.

  25. Paritosh, I have an Indian friend who works in Luxumbourg. He deals with Germans and French on a daily basis and his views of the Germans are far more positive than they are of the French. I congratulate you for your positive experiences; I too have had several, living in Europe. But as you say, the French will be French.

  26. Namrata- Well I am glad that you snubbed him when he got out of hand; not too sure I agree with what you say about Christians in India or the Orissa affair but that is a separate matter. I have to say I would be suspicious when a lot of Europeans would raise this issue simply becuase Europe isn’t a religously intense society like the US and don’est seemt to concerned about Chrsitanity evangelicamisn, hence any expression of concern would lead me to doubt the good faith of the questioner. This is esecpially true of France, given how rigidly anti-clerical and anti-Chirstian official state policy in France is. In anycase, I hope this guy knows not to run his mouth off without engaging his brain first. I wouldn’t worry about changing his mind, because that is beyond anybody’s control except his own; that you have altered his behaviour and public conduct is victory enough imo.

    Paritosh – I agree a lot with your comments. I have found Germans to have a good opinion and regard towards India; but then Germany despite the interwar fiasco of Nazism; didn’t really have much of a colonial empire (there were a brief attempt in Africa but this didn’t last long) and don’t have the tradition of Orientialism that the French and the English do regarding former colonial peoples. Also being on the defeating end of two WWs Germans are not as brashly nationalistic or quicky to make such judgements unlike the French/English.

    I would only slightly disagree with you as regards racism but this is prolly because my experience comes from working in the UK; there is a considerable race-relations problem here with the South Asian community and the Anglo-Saxon one and complaints about loss of jobs overseas and outsourcing are often veiled with racist metaphors. Despite this, Indian culture etc. are very popular in the UK. NRI colleagues of mine who come here are unpleasantly jolted by the racism they encounter nevertheless; which to me shows that racism can coexist with favourable attitudes towards a country still. Mixed European attitudes towards Israel is anothercase in point. But I agree about your cautions on generalisations; most Europeans tend to judge you as an individual and I think if they like you that obviously has an impact on what they think of India and Indians in general.

  27. Paritosh,

    I think it is dangerous to shy away from interpretations merely because they are politically incorrect. I ask a question why continental Europeans are thinking the way they are, and I think John Pomfret might have a point.

    I would still like to understand why Germany is the country where India is least popular?

  28. Paritosh, I have dealt with about 15 approx French in my lifetime, on a close interpersonal level. Out of those dealings, I believe only two continue on a positive level (the most positive case involving a half Spanish person, maybe thats why) and the others have almost all ended on a negative note. This has been a unique and peculiar experience with the French.

    Since this thread is about generalities, and general perception of nationalities, I will mention that in general I have high regard for Spaniards (I find myself closest to them) and have generally had limited experience with other Europeans. Maybe its my luck or destiny or whatever you want to call it, but my experiences with the French (not just one or two, but many) haven’t been quite as positive.

    Trilok, thanks!

    Conrad, agree regd France maintaining high seperation of church and state, however, the person’s comment I believe was solely to make a negative point, had nothing to do, imo, with him being Christian or religious, evangelical etc. About the Orissa chapter, I agree thats a different story. But it had to be explained to him because he specifically brought it up as “Hindus persecuting Christians….”


  29. Nitin,
    I have used my experience in Germany as the basis for my thoughts above and I have not used political correctness to guide me.

    I have read this report earlier and mentioned it on my blog (tryaksha – post dtd. 24.02.2009) that the only reason I see why emerging economies (not just India) are rated negatively is due to the changing political and economic order as a result of globalization. It is the insecurity that manifests itself in their views of the world around – at least, I can say that for the Germans.

    If you look at the negative ratings of other emerging nations given by Germany: China and Russia at 69 and 70% resp. and Brazil at 40% are the extremes. S. Africa and India at 53 and 54% are in the middle, relatively well off, if you consider that Brazil and Germany share much more in common than their passion for soccer. I will not be surprised if the negative ratings go up further as India increases it global ‘footprint’ on the political and economic stage – I find this to be a perfectly natural reaction (not ideal, but not unexpected either)

    Why Germany, of all other nations, should rate India most negatively? And my unqualified answer here is:
    They are inherently pessimistic about the future. And they are genuine in their opinions, so you won’t see that rating flawed by some people trying to be politically correct there.
    Plus they have been used to a successful socialist market economy, which guaranteed social security for one and all. When that is being challenged and impacted, the sense of insecurity is even more heightened. (This is probably true for the French as well, but that is purely a presumption). Unlike America, the German post-war economy was propped up by Germans and that was a source of pride for them. That pride has been dented in the past few years as globalization brings them in competition, which is often decided to their disadvantage, due to the changing demographics, talent pools, and cost structures across the globe.

    And this is the point I am trying to make: insecurity cannot be interpreted as racism. Pomfret actually does say “there is an element of racism or just plain fear” (and he does have a point), but the post above chose to highlight only racism. Racism is too strong a word to be used loosely in a general context (a personal opinion) – for a people or a nation. And speaking for Germany, there are, no doubt, a few bad apples that deserve this title, but not the entire orchard.

    I really wish I had a more qualified answer to your question, but I can only talk from my experiences with Germans here, thoughts they have shared, and my own thoughts, which admittedly tend towards idealism. What do I have to gain, in this virtual world, by judging somebody as politically correct, or lose for judging somebody to be politically incorrect?

    p.s. I follow your blog regularly and really appreciate the issues/questions you bring up – looking forward to more discussions like these… Cheers, P.

  30. Namrata,
    I am not surprised that you find yourself getting along very well with the Spanish – some of my best friends are Spanish and Italians. I seriously think it is the weather (which, in turn, dictates lifestyles) that makes a difference…will elaborate on this at some later date… 🙂

    And about the French, I have only heard stories, including from my cousin, who was studying at INSEAD – chose to take up an offer in Finland, instead of staying back in France with another company. I have found my French friends very much agreeable – but that probably has to do with the fact that one gets to choose his friends and not colleagues at work or co-students. So, my exposure to the French has been minimal.

    I really hope you are enjoying your time in Spain…

  31. Namrata,

    As an Indian living in France, I would say the French are really enamored with India. And they are extremely nice people as well. May be I am biased because most of my friends are students. But I don’t think France is racist at all. In fact, France has the highest inter-racial weddings in the whole of Europe. French people have a long history of liberalism and equality, going right back to the French revolution.

  32. Nitin,

    You mentioned that you are still trying to understand the reason why Europeans swung so strongly against Indians in the last one year. I have an explanation – though it is based partially on my experience in Germany. Here Daniel Hannan talks about the right wing CDU’s growing influence in Germany with a blatantly racist slogans for the elections like “Kinder statt Inder”(Children instead of Indians)(2000) and “Zukunft statt Islamisierung und auslanderwahl” (Future instead of Islamic and foreign communities)(2008) etc. (I took a picture of one such posters for posterity )
    Do read the links that he presented in that article regarding the rise of xenophobic opinions in EU nations of late mainly
    here, here and here

    This influence was limited to the traditionally xenophobic states in Germany like Bavaria, Brandenburg (where they voted in a party with neo-nazi affiliations to local government recently and so on). However, elections last year probably gave them a public forum to thresh out these opinions.

    Ofcourse, a growing Muslim community in these nations could also be a reason for reactionary opinions against middle east and by association (of skin colour) to Indians as well.

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