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Taking a wrong turn

In the nationalist paranoia about Western values, India and China are forgetting that conceit can make societies lose their moral balance, says Pranab Bardhan.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:43 IST
Pranab Bardhan

The stories of mismanagement before the start of the recently-completed Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and of the hysterical reaction in Beijing to the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo illustrate in their different ways the complexity of national political culture in India and China now strutting in a global playing field and the self-image of their elite.

In the build-up to the Commonwealth Games, a relatively minor international sporting event, the scandals of ineptitude and corruption around the construction projects became a matter of widespread scathing commentary in the Indian media. The Indian urban elite, which is itching to bask in the glory of their country’s much-awaited climbing the global ranks of big powers, often described this as a matter of national humiliation; the comparison with the superb Chinese organisation of the much bigger Olympics event merely two years back was found particularly galling. For this elite, it is not quite a matter of national humiliation that India continues to be the world’s largest country of illiterates and school dropouts, of child and maternal mortality, of stunted and underweight children. In broad health and education indicators, India today is where China was 40 years back, long before economic reform and high growth started there. Even in India’s economically most-advanced state, Gujarat, the proportion of malnourished children is much larger than in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the scathing commentary in the Indian media around the Commonwealth Games also reminds one about the sharp contrast with a major suppressed scandal in China around the time of the Olympics. A few weeks before the 2008 Olympics, there was what came to be called later the tainted milk scandal in China. Journalists were officially encouraged to suppress this bad news in view of the imminent Olympics, which was being stage-managed as China’s moment of international glory. Journalists who were fully aware of the large dimensions of the scandal avoided writing about it (though they duly warned their close friends and relatives about the milk) “in order to be harmonious”, as one editor said in justification later to a foreign reporter. Meanwhile nearly three hundred thousand children fell sick and dozens died. Somehow most of the Chinese elite, which is basking in superpower glory, did not consider this a matter of national humiliation.

Chinese official agencies have now declared the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, as an affront against Chinese national dignity and a malicious attempt to impose Western values on Chinese society. (One indignant Chinese ‘netizen’ announced that from now on he’d avoid Norwegian salmon, another vowed that next time he goes to Macao for gambling, he’ll boycott Norwegian prostitutes). The officials, of course, blithely ignore that China is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, and freedom of expression and protest is ornamentally a part of Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution. These ‘Western’ values of non-violent dissent are vociferously practised in several non-Western countries, including India where some have even traced these values to ancient Indian political philosophy and practice.

What is worrying is that this is not just Chinese official over-reaction and propaganda. Last year a prominent Beijing intellectual told me that dissidents like Liu Xiaobo have marginalised themselves in the Chinese intellectual community by aligning their cause too much to the West. This kind of attitude even among intellectuals makes it easy for the Chinese leadership to portray any external criticism of the regime as a slur on Chinese self-respect and any dissent as sedition. In both China and India particularly among the middle classes a kind of preening nationalism is raging. Of course, Indian political culture has been somewhat more tolerant of dissent and diversity, and electoral arithmetic often makes compromise and cooptation of dissenting groups necessary. Yet much of the rest of the country looks away – or regards it as the necessary price for keeping the nation state intact — as gross abuse of human rights and violence by the Indian Army and paramilitary regularly take place in Kashmir, Manipur and Bastar (Chhattisgarh) often reciprocated by the rebels. In different parts of India, the Hindu nationalist forces raise their ugly head, politically and socially, and win elections from time to time.

In the nationalist paranoia about Western values one often forgets that the ideology of the nation state with its homogenising and aggrandising propensities is itself an import from the West. Western history is littered with the devastation at home and abroad caused by the overbearing Nation State. The memory of colonial oppression and defeat by the West and the longstanding reality of its international economic and military domination add fuel to the ultra-nationalism in Asia, both on the chauvinist right and the anti-imperialist left. The misdeeds and the ambiguity of a country’s own history do not deter the nationalist zeal and myth-making. As the 19th century French philosopher, Ernst Renan, famously said, part of being a nation is to get its history wrong. About 100 years ago, at a time when a fervent nationalist movement in India was surging all around, Rabindranath Tagore wrote novels and essays that pointedly showed how harmful nationalism can be — “with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns”.

Countries like China and India have to draw the lesson from Western history of how national conceit can make societies lose their moral balance.

Pranab Bardhan is Professor of Economics at University of California, Berkeley, and author of Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India (OUP) The views expressed by the author are personal