Rethinking India’s Animal Imagery: Why It's Time To Shed The Elephant Metaphor

Rethinking India’s Animal Imagery: Why It's Time To Shed The Elephant Metaphor

by Ambuj Sahu - Friday, May 19, 2023 02:51 PM IST
Rethinking India’s Animal Imagery: Why It's Time To Shed The Elephant MetaphorA New York Times cartoon depicting India as an obstacle - an elephant on the tracks - during the climate talks. (Twitter)
  • The real problem with elephant imagery is not the animal itself. It is the shortcomings of how these magnanimous creatures are made to associate with India.

    Unsurprisingly, India accepts the ‘lumbering elephant’ analogy without considering its implications on the broader international and strategic identity.

Countries worldwide have historically used animal imagery to highlight certain aspects of their national identity.

These animals shape the popular imagination of a country globally while instilling a sense of national consciousness and cultural heritage among the people.

Be it the high-flying eagle of the United States, the flame-spitting dragon of China, or the ferocious bear of Russia, animals project some of the most formidable characteristics of a nation.

Can the same be argued for India? Does the elephant represent our best qualities to the world? Unfortunately, No.

Now don’t get me wrong! Elephants are an inalienable part of Hindu civilisational iconography. They are worshipped as 'Ganesha', the god of auspicious beginnings.

The white elephant Airavata is the mount of Indra, the king of Devas. In some tales, Gautama Buddha is also believed to be a reincarnation of a heavenly elephant.

Elephants have admirable traits like high emotional intelligence, physical strength, and a peaceful demeanour. At the same time, they are ruthless beasts who were once trained for warfare.

So, the real problem with elephant imagery is not the animal itself. It is the shortcomings of these magnanimous creatures that are associated with India.

Globally the elephant stands for India’s inability to perform at its potential, alluding to slow economic growth and a failure to perform the miracle like other Asian economies.

Ironically, Indian elephants that met the outside world for the first time in recorded history were not idyllic dancers but trained war beasts.

Alexander lost his prized horse Bucephalus on the banks of Jhelum to none other than an army of elephants. Yet the intellectual discourse in the last thirty years sees India as the exotic elephant that moves at a lumbering pace.

Even today, any discussion on India’s rise is equated to the prospects of a dancing elephant.

The ‘lumbering elephant’ discourse, primarily for the Indian economy, can be traced back to the 1990s. The early debates focused on whether India could replicate the economic success of the East Asian Tigers through the 1991 economic reforms.

One of the first ‘elephant’ references during those years can be traced to a 1993-article, where Shalendra Sharma (then at the University of San Francisco) described pre-reform India as a “lame elephant – immense, lethargic, and seemingly lumbering into obscurity”.

Though the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 diverted global attention briefly, China’s rise in the 2000s led to a wave of comparative scholarship on Indian and Chinese economies.

As India lagged behind China despite clocking a 6-8% annual growth rate in the mid-2000s, the ‘lame elephant’ analogy was rubber-stamped. In 2006, Pranab Bardhan (then at UC Berkeley) reaffirmed India as a “lumbering elephant” against the “crouching tiger” of China.

A report by Australia’s Lowy Institute, in its take on India’s “idiosyncratic” development path, further fuelled this value-laden tiger-elephant dichotomy.

Though Indian economists like Deepak Nayyar attempted a pushback, the popular works of Shashi Tharoor and David Malone imposed the ‘slow elephant’ image not only on the Indian economy but also on its foreign policy.

Tharoor, a top UN bureaucrat from India, legitimised the Western paradigm on the tiger-elephant debate through The Elephant, The Tiger, and the Cell Phone (2007).

While Malone, as an Ambassador from a Western democracy, sealed the ‘lumbering elephant’ analogy with his Does the Elephant Dance? (2011). In 2012, an HSBC report called India a “gasping elephant”.

Notwithstanding the optimism or pessimism towards the India story, the entire narrative created a long-lasting pessimistic global image that India, as the Washington Post put it in 2013, was “slow, but when it moved, others had to sit up and take notice”.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he embarked on a mission to reshape India’s fundamental identity.

For example, the ‘Make in India’ symbol is not an elephant. However, the last nine years could only do little to change India’s animal economics in the eyes of global elites.

Though India aspires to be the next big thing and remains a shining spot in the post-pandemic global economy, it is yet to let go off the historical baggage of being the slow elephant.

In 2018, the IMF described India as an elephant starting to run. In 2020, former RBI governor D Subbarao sang the same tune for a dancing elephant on Wharton School’s podcast, hoping for India to “deliver the next economic miracle”.

Why do global elites, many of them of Indian descent, highlight the perceived weakness of India’s animal imagery over its strengths? Perhaps because they chose to see only a part of India’s history and woefully ignored the Elephant’s Dilemma.

Elephants indeed exhibit enormous strength and mental awareness.

Despite being born blind, they can immediately stand up and walk. At the same time, the gestation period of elephants is the largest among all mammals. But if chained from an early age, elephants grow into believing that they cannot break their shackles.

Two centuries of colonial rule chained the Indian mind to accept Western connotations about itself without questioning.

Unsurprisingly, India accepts the ‘lumbering elephant’ analogy without considering its implications on the broader international and strategic identity.

Therefore, India needs to rethink its animal imagery and actively shed the elephant metaphor in its present form. 

Ambuj Sahu is currently pursuing his PhD in Political Science from Indiana University Bloomington (USA) and holds a B. Tech. in Electrical Engineering from IIT Delhi. He tweets @DarthThunderous.
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