Saturday, October 07, 2006

Superpower status for India: For whom?

Superpower status for India: For whom?
Ravi Shanker Kapoor
It is not only power that corrupts men and women. Even its absence, and yearning for it, has a corrupting influence—at least in India. Almost every second day we are informed about some study or estimate showing that by 2015, 2020, or some other year, we would become a superpower. We would be a world power like the United States. And the result is an orgy of self-congratulatory inanities.
We start feeling proud of everything we think we can boast of. We feel proud of the Himalayas and the Ganges, of Taj Mahal and Khajuraho, of our glorious history and cultural diversity, of our freedom movement and Mahatma Gandhi, of our secularism and pluralism, of our doctors and engineers, of Satyajit Ray and Shekhar Kapoor, of Kalpana Chawla and Hargovind Khurana, of the booming software sector and "our" LN Mittal. It is a long list. We are also proud of Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, though she has declared her desire to "secede" from India.
Even minor achievements, like Sania Mirza entering the third round of Australian Open, are magnified a million times and presented as "historic" feats. Sometimes, sheer fraudulence is glorified—e.g., Saurav Singh topping a non-existent Nasa test.
In this patriotic hysteria, a few facts are cavalierly ignored. First, America is the sole superpower today in spite of itself and not because it wanted to be one. The Americans always wanted to remain in isolation; they wanted to shield their country—which many or them saw as an Arcadia—from the corruptions, enthusiasms, and bigotry of the Old World. Hence the Monroe Doctrine. Hence the Senate’s veto against joining the League of Nations. Hence America’s refusal to join the World Wars as an original belligerent. Not that this isolationism was without exceptions; America did intervene in South East Asia, and got embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then there was the fierce engagement with the Soviet Union in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, which resulted in the demise of communism. The same, however, cannot be said about the current American war on terror; it is a reactive rather than proactive engagement, a consequence of September 11—an event that has been compared with Pearl Harbor. The fact is that not one American conservative thinker in the twentieth century—from Russel Kirk and Whittakar Chambers to William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Victor David Hanson—pontificated about making the US a superpower. On the contrary, some of the issues which engage our experts, scholars, intellectuals, and media brahmins are: when would India become a developed country, how to build an Indian century, when would we achieve the superpower status. We are impatient to become a superpower.
Second, it is not America that calls itself a superpower; it is the rest of the world that does so—often despairingly. Owing to its economic might, military muscle, technological prowess, and cultural dominance, America is seen as a country whose presence cannot be ignored by any people on this planet.
The third important fact that is often ignored is this: achieving the superpower status is not something that can be called a tangible target. India, or any other country, can fix a target to double its per capita income in five or eight years, of removing poverty in a time-frame, of eradicating polio or child labor in another time-frame, of electrifying all villages by some date; all these are quantifiable and measurable targets. But achieving the superpower status or building an Indian century is not a quantifiable target; one can’t fix a date and say that on this day India will become a superpower. How can any of us hazard a guess that on such and such day the rest of the world would see India as a superpower?
The most important fact that is overlooked in jingoistic frenzy is that in India there is a lack of almost every prerequisite that has made America a superpower. America believes in free economy and open society; both are under threat in India. Unfortunately, both are under threat from the Left as well as the Right. The threat from the Left is political as well as ideological. The intellectual class, especially in India, largely remains wedded to the pernicious philosophy of socialism. True that there is a vocal segment of pro-reforms lobby, but it’s too small and too restricted to the conference halls of business chambers to influence the public discourse at large; the public discourse is still carried out in an essentially Leftist idiom. Privatization, for instance, is equated with "selling of family silver" and foreign investment is seen as the onslaught of myriad East India Companies. Such is the intellectual hegemony of the Left that even the Sangh Parivar, the so-called Right, ends up echoing socialist shibboleths. And it has proved to be as effective as communists in checking India’s march to market economy. For instance, it played a key role in stalling oil sector privatization in 2002.
The threat to the open society, too, could scarcely be over-emphasized. There is the Sangh Parivar which wants the society to be controlled and regulated; it wants to prescribe which movies to watch, which songs and videos to be banned; it wants to guide men and women what they should wear, how they should behave, why they should avoid abominations like Valentine’s Day.
The attempts of the Left to destroy the open society are no less frightening. It cries hoarse when members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal criticize MF Hussain’s painting of nude Saraswati; it screams that this is an attack on the freedom of expression. But it bans Tasleema Nasreen’s book; it brazenly placates the rabid mullahs by joining in the persecution of the brave author. And it is not only the communist parties that indulge in duplicity; the entire intellectual class is involved in duplicity. Our great intellectuals wax eloquent about the right to expression when Hussain is attacked by Hindu nationalists; they write pompous articles; they sermonize in talk-shows; they rave and rant at seminars; they participate in candle-light marches. But when the issue is Tasleema Nasreen, there is a thundering silence; at the most, there is a one-liner that ‘we condemn attacks by Muslim communalists, as we condemn attacks by Hindu communalists,’ and that is the end of it; there is no dance and drama about assault on the freedom of expression. So much for their love for the open society.
Worse, intellectuals still love the Nehruvian claptrap. The result is that the nation shows astonishing propensity to soak high humbug. For instance, the well-known author Sunil Khilnani said at a conference some time ago, "In recent decades, we have done well in building up economic and military power. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the rise in our economic and military strength has coincided with a decline in moral power."
This is much more than high humbug; this is mendacity at its worst. What moral power we ever had? As a nation, we mostly sided with the Soviet Union whose ideology was the most barbarous mankind has ever seen. We kept quiet at the rape of Hungary in 1956 and the outrage in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the name of Non-Aligned Movement, we entertained some of the worst tyrants of the world. As a nation, we annexed Goa without going to the United Nations. We were responsible for the vivisection of Pakistan. We unnecessarily sent troops to Sri Lanka, and burnt our fingers. Where was "moral power" in all this? But our politicians and intellectuals succeeded for half a century of convincing the people of India’s "moral power." Now they are trying to fool us about the imminence of India becoming a superpower.
In any case, who would gain from the superpower status? The answer is unambiguous: the politician. But it is restraint on the powers of the politician¾ and not his further empowerment¾ that should be the objective of all decent citizens. So, an endeavor to accelerate the rollback of the state from economy and society would be a better occupation. All the talk of India becoming a superpower is nothing but opium of the opinion-makers. The sooner we gave up vainglorious pretensions of moral power or global superpower, the better for us.


Blogger Cinnamon said...

Thought-provoking piece. And I really like your blog. Linked it at my own, as a matter of fact:

Your analysis of American superpower status is spot on and very much in accordance with my own views on the subject (as a conservative American). And you rightly criticize India for its shortcomings, particularly of the multiculturalist variety.

But I think you're being a bit hard on your own country. While Indians should have loftier goals than simple superpower status (devoid of economic and/or moral footing), all that "jingoism" is a way of expressing pride in one's country, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

From where I stand, India has earned it. And a little patriotism can be a means to furthering the process. So I wouldn't entirely knock nationalism.

5:30 PM  

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