HTLS 2020: Heralding a new era of Indian assertiveness in global order
The Maastricht Treaty that heralded the transformation of a European Common Market into an integrated European Union was undoubtedly a pathbreaking development that promised to make the old nationalisms redundant.Updated: Nov 19, 2020, 17:42 IST
Sometime in the late 1980s, during the heydays of the Congress rule, I attended an ‘international conference’ in Delhi on the prospects for the coming decade or something similarly nebulous. Among the global participants was a former Prime Minister of France, Raymond Barre, a man whose rich experience had been further garnished with a cynicism that comes with age.
The theme of the particular session was ‘New World Information Order’, an idea that the creaking Soviet Union had been trying to popularise, particularly among the so-called ‘developing’ countries such as India. When it was Barre’s turn to make an intervention, he began with a shrug: “New world information order. Ah yes. I have been hearing about it since my youth.”
As someone observing the proceedings from the margins, I couldn’t contain my laughter. The weighty delegates, however, weren’t terribly amused by the old man’s stiletto jab. In a small aside he had punctured many pretensions.
Some three decades later, I can appreciate the profound wisdom of the French statesman. A disproportionate amount of space in my personal library is taken up by books, published decades ago, that claimed to look into the future and define a ‘new’ world. Some of the landmarks are worth recalling.
The Maastricht Treaty that heralded the transformation of a European Common Market into an integrated European Union was undoubtedly a pathbreaking development that promised to make the old nationalisms redundant. But has it? The departure of the United Kingdom from the EU and the strains over immigration in other EU member-states suggest that the more the world changes the more it remains the same.
It is the same for the “End of History” that was anticipated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its socialist world in 1989-90. Liberal democracy is certainly the ideal of yesterday’s radicals and the rebellious 1968 generation that used to sneer at ‘bourgeois democracy’. In India, an entire generation wasted itself even believing that Mao Zedong’s horrific Proletarian Cultural Revolution would pave the way for a new start, unburdened by the past. This, in a sense, was also the dream of the Taliban in Afghanistan and their successors hell bent on recreating an Islamic Caliphate in West Asia. Were they very different from the passionate upholders of the Thousand Year Reich with a Greater Germany as its epicentre?
Millenarian visions of change have invariably had nasty endings, whether in Asia or Europe. This may explain why the past four decades also witnessed the resurgence of a New Conservatism that also appealed to the orphaned adherents of the New Left. For Margaret Thatcher and the disciples of Hayek, it was the market that emerged as the new God. The market, for all its quixotic behaviour, was expected to be the collation of objective realities and popular perceptions. Yet, Lord Keynes refused to be buried and the weight of public opinion and electoral calculations forced politicians to revisit the idea of an interventionist state. It was public opinion, too, that was principally responsible for globalisation getting a bloody nose in large parts of the world and, quite paradoxically, China emerging as its great champion.
For us in India, the past three decades have seen momentous changes. The India of the shortage economy and institutionalised inefficiency exists in patches — some parts of eastern India are still a journey back in time — but the heart of India has changed unrecognisably. Yet, those who imagined that the advent of a new economy, reduced state intervention and greater mobility of people both within and overseas, would trigger a huge political upheaval are bound to be disappointed.
In the 1970s it was fashionable for some scholars to claim that the Green Revolution would usher a Red Revolution but it ended up looking extremely silly. In today’s India, radicalism may endure in Bastar and few other inhospitable parts of the country, but it is being cultivated by those whose radical mentalities were principally shaped in the campuses of Europe and North America.
On the contrary, it is felt that India is in the throes of a Hindu revival which has taken the form of majoritarian assertiveness. This, again, is a characteristic overstatement by pamphleteers and impressionable journalists itching to make a mark. Yes, there certainly has been explosion of pride in being Hindu — an overdue correction after a prolonged spell of enforced condescension — but to suggest this is contributing to something akin to the Islamism of the Muslim world is a colossal misrepresentation. The cultural pride we are experiencing seems to be born entirely out of a new feel of prosperity and the end of absolute deprivation. It also coincides with the eroding cultural self-esteem in the West and a self-destructive mood of self-flagellation that has gripped the Caucasian world. The mood of assertiveness among Indians and Chinese stands in sharp contrast to the self-shaming process in the West.
These may be trends but are they going to be enduring? Are they going to define a new, post-Covid world? The answer is an honest ‘we don’t know’. The past has been riddled with false prophecies couched in a language of certitude. Yet, most developments have turned out to be remarkably transitional. This tentativeness may well endure, at least in my lifetime. The Upanishads may have got it right after all. It is best to be guided by the motto Charaiveti, Charaiveti.