India and the Western Liberal Democratic Order (Part A)

Feb 11,2017

I deem it a great privilege to be able to interact with you this afternoon. There is unmistakable turbulence in the air. The unsettling nature of global changes presents challenges for countries like India that had come to accept the international order as a given with a certain underlying predictability in the unfolding of events. These events also offer, if I may submit, certain opportunities that India could seize.


Today’s venue is important and I deem it a great honour to be able to speak on India and the Western Liberal Democratic Order at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution to the establishment of the modern Indian State was, without doubt, truly significant. After the tragic assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, Mr. Nehru’s was the dominant intellectual influence. He not only set the narrative but was largely successful in fashioning the course of newly independent India’s domestic social and economic policies and, perhaps equally important, defining the terms of newly independent India’s engagement with the rest of the world, including the West. I will have an opportunityshortly to revert to that dominant narrative which bears Mr. Nehru’s strong imprint.


Continuity and Change:

For most of my adult lifeI have been fascinated by issues related to continuity and change. Except for historical events that are truly revolutionary in character and result in sudden cataclysmic change, students of the social sciences, like me, for most of the time try to study the phenomenon of continuity and change as part of inexorable forces that, at the very core, are anchored in a struggle between a reassuring status quo and forces making for change, based on an increase and explosion of knowledge, innovation and technology, to name a few. One generation, to cite just one example, concluded its study of physics by saying that the atom is indivisible. A succeeding generation was able to commence its knowledge of physics by empirically demonstrating that the atom is divisible and that too with devastating consequence.


For students of social sciences, continuity and change are part and parcel of a slow, even boring movement of history, which because it often appears so dull, is not always discernible. This makes the student, the analyst and the commentator complacent and liable to misjudge, underestimate and mischaracterize underlying trends that are truly significant and could and do have far reaching longer term consequences. Some change, under this category, often difficult to discover, can be truly revolutionary in nature.


I should emphasize two caveats at the outset. One, beware of the student, the analyst, the reporter who loses sight of his/her primary professional role and chooses to inject himself/herself into an advocacy role drawing on the one hand, a salary for example as a news reporter and simultaneously pursuing a private agenda on an issue or a cause or in an election pursues a partisan agenda that undermines his/her professional judgment and can, as it ever so often does, lead to wrong assessments, and misleading the consumers of his/her ‘product’. Significant and distinguished members of the fourth estate including some of the icons of the industry, like CNN and the New York Times disgraced themselves in the elections that led to the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. That they wished to see another Clinton re-elected was the least of their problems. Their professional standing took a beating.


Two, the student, analyst or the journalist would do himself/herself a great favour by acknowledging upfront that we are conditioned more profoundly by the ‘dominant narrative’ than perhaps we realize and more certainly, would be willing to admit. In analyzing the influences on a growing child, one is ever so often tempted to ask and enquire, about the influence of ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’. A good student of history is advised to ask ‘who is the historian’, what are his/her biases, how much of what has been written is ‘commissioned’ and is the account borne out by the objective reality recorded elsewhere? The medieval court historian could prove to be notoriously unreliable. Much of what he, yes I am not aware of female chroniclers in medieval times, wrote was for posterity. More important, the intention was to produce an account that would facilitate a ‘favourable view’ of the King or the Emperor, the chronicler’s master. Fortunately, the age of instant news and social media have the advantage of ensuring that barbaric acts will be judged hastily, no matter how painstaking the ‘attempted white wash’.


In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I had predicted both Brexit and the Trump victory.


Are you a ‘psychic’ or what? First Brexit and now Trump. That was the essence of a sharp and crisp message my younger daughter sent me on the morning it was clear that Trump would win the Electoral College. No, I am neither a psychic nor particularly knowledgeable about the dynamics of either a Referendum in the United Kingdom or American electoral politics. As a student of social sciences, I am, however, sufficiently educated to see the deep flaws in a dominant narrative when it is being falsely created with embroidered facts.


Most dominant narratives are axiomatically shaped by the maturity and strength of the intellectual discourse of the day.


The intellectual class and professional thinkers, the think tanks, dominant sections of the press and their economic and commercial collaborators were naturally shell shocked first by the Brexit vote and then Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States. With elections due this year in the Netherlands, Germany, France and elsewhere, the so-called western liberal democratic order may be facing denouement in the eyes of those favouring and heavily invested in the existing order who are also without doubt its beneficiaries.


The process did not begin in the West. Narendra Modi’s election in May 2014 with the BJP getting an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha after a gap of nearly thirty years was not only unprecedented, the total rout of the Congress Party was equally, if not more, significant. Were there any similarities in the tapping of the existential angst that made these electoral outcomes possible? I propose today to reflect on some of these factors.


Shaping of the dominant narrative

I was born five years after India gained independence. By the time I reached University in the late 1960s, the ideological debate was shaped by the dominant intellectual influences of the time. Karl Marx on the Left and the writings of Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies) at one level (just to name two), and different shades of socialism which India’s western educated Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had imbibed. After the tragic assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation, Jawaharlal Nehru was undoubtedly the most influential intellectual figure of his time till his demise on 27 May, 1964. I have no doubt the dominant narrative would have been different if Gandhi had lived on.


In some respects, the Harrow and Cambridge educated Jawaharlal was the quintessential product of the interaction between India and the West.


Bharatvarsha and the Occident

It would be instructive to briefly go into history prior to and during the phase of British colonialism. The Cambridge economist Angus Madison has estimated that India’s share of global GDP in 1700 i.e. before the East India Company established itself in India and a 190 years typical colonial interaction commenced, was 27%. By 1950, three years after India gained its independence, India’s share had fallen to 3%. Even 70 years after independence, India is only a 2 trillion dollar economy with 3.5% share of global GDP.


In short, 27% of global GDP before colonial exploitation, 3% after gaining independence and only 3.5%, 70 years later.


Let us now look at some other perceptions of India, from the outside. I propose to quote two foreigners and one Indian.


Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on 30 November, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Better known by his pen name Mark Twain, he travelled at the age of 60 to India and what was then known as Ceylon. Some excerpts from his diary.


  • “In religion, all other countries are paupers. India is the only millionaire.”
  • “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”
  • “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”
  • “So far as I am able to judge nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked. “


This is what the French Scholar Romain Rolland had to say:

  • “If there is one place on the face of earth where all dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.” 


And Swami Vivekananda:

  • “… India for thousands of years peacefully existed. Here activity prevailed when even Greece did not exist. Even earlier, when history had no record, and tradition dares not peer into the gloom of that intense past, even from then until now, ideas after ideas have marched out from her, but every word has been spoken with a blessing behind it and peace before it. We, of all nations of the world, have never been a conquering race, and that blessing is on our head and therefore we live…”


How could a country with such economic, religious and spiritual strength be subjugated and exploited by a colonial power thousands of miles away through the instrument of a trading company?


Historians will advance a number of reasons. Political rivalries within and a variety of other explanations. My focus here today is on the ‘dominant narrative’.


All 36 paragraphs of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute on Education of 2 February 1835 merit being read in their entirety, I will quote only a few lines to provide an insight into the motivation and context that this monumental change of ‘narrative’ and ‘mindset’ entailed.


“…we have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”


It would be instructive to get some insights into the inferiority complex and subservient mindset of the Orientalists that were giving the Hon’ble T.B. Macaulay such confidence.


The rest is history. The British left India leaving behind an identical Indian elite. Many have written about the devastating economic effects of colonization, the de-industrialization India suffered. Perhaps more serious is the colonization of mind which many of us have not yet fully shed even 70 years after independence. It is fashionable now a day to talk of strategic choices. After being subjected to colonial exploitation for two hundred years, India’s first Prime Minister’s faith in the British probably explains why he took the country into the British Commonwealth. It was most likely the same misplaced faith that explains the Kashmir issue being referred to the UN Security Council.


Lest I be accused of contributing to a populist narrative, let me flag that colonial exploitation was not the only process responsible for the vast disparity between the India of 1700 and 1947. By 1900, the world was largely in Europe’s hands, both economically and politically. Economically, this was facilitated by the Industrial Revolution that took place between 1750 and 1850. Starting in England with the advent of the steam engine, industrial steel production, scientific farming, and the mechanization of textiles, these developments truly created the European world.

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