'It Was India's Good Fortune To Be A British Colony'

The man who once called India a functioning anarchy, John Kenneth Galbraith, in conversation with Arun Venugopal

'It Was India's Good Fortune To Be A British Colony' | illustration by Jayachandran
While the pace of his day has slowed down, John Kenneth Galbraith's mind remains vibrant and unrelenting. The 93-year-old economist has been living at his Harvard campus home with his wife Catherine for over 50 years. Surrounded by Indian miniatures and thangkas that he has collected over the years, Galbraith relives his long association with India, a relationship that has profoundly altered his worldview. He also talks of his close friendship with Nehru, who figures in his book Name-Dropping. "You realise, Galbraith," Nehru had once told him, "I am the last Englishman to rule in India."

What would you say your first abiding memory of India is?
Well, my first abiding memory of India was the result of my concerns at the time, which were mainly economic. I think, looking back, I exaggerated the role of economics, not surprisingly. In general, I've come to think that there are other measures of success that rival economics, and that is in the arts, in culture generally, and education, and in the contribution to a peaceful world.

A little bit of that grows out of my changed thought towards developed countries. I no longer react automatically to an increase in the Gross National Product (gnp). I do react much more strongly to a step upward in cultural life and in artistic achievement, and in scientific work. I never believed that India would become one of the leaders in the computer revolution. So I have a much more complex measure of national success than I did in 1956.

Was that the first time you were in India?
Yes. We were there to study the prospects of the second five-year plan. Various countries around the world were asked to send observers and advisors for the five-year-plan. And I met P.C. Mahalanobis (the principal advisor on economic development to Nehru) in Geneva, who was in charge of the effort. And he complained (that) the Eisenhower administration, when asked, had sent him Milton Friedman, the great conservative. And I made the observation that having Friedman advise on planning was very much like having the Holy Father in Rome advising a birth control clinic. And Mahalanobis was sufficiently impressed by that figure of speech that he asked my wife and me to come, and we did.

Would you say that before you arrived you had some preconceptions about India and your relation to it?
Oh, sure. Everybody does. And as a one-time Canadian, I had first a natural suspicion of any form of colonialism, and second, a natural sense of any product of the British empire. I was born and educated in what was still called a British dominion.

Are there any qualities which you find to be particularly Indian?
I'm not an expert at identifying national character but a large number of Indians from Jawaharlal Nehru down became our very good friends. I don't attribute the fact that they were Indians to that friendship. I attribute it to the fact that they were very attractive, intelligent people, and very interesting at what they did. Of all the world leaders at that time, none attracted my attention more than Nehru. He became a quite wonderful friend. He was also, I must add, greatly devoted to my wife. The two were good friends. And we became very, very good friends of Indira.

Do you think Hinduism is central to India's identity or do you think that secularism is?
I wouldn't draw a strong line between the two. I would say the inescapable thing is the extraordinary diversity of Indian intellectual and artistic interests.

Do you think the rise in recent years of Hindu fundamentalism is counter to the diversity of Indian culture?
Certainly not. The shifts in Indian interests, including political interests and identity, is one of the inevitable features of Indian life and has been for hundreds of years.

You've famously called India a functioning anarchy. Why and how did that happen; have you revised your views on that?
Oh, there are some things you say to attract attention. I wanted to emphasise the point, which would be widely accepted, that the success of India did not depend on the government. It depended on the energy, ingenuity and other qualifications of the Indian people. And the Indian quality to put ideas into practice. I was urging an obvious point that the progress of India did not depend on the government, as important as that might be, but was enormously dependent on the initiative, individual and group—of the Indian people.

And do you feel the same way now or do you think things have changed?
I feel the same way now but I would even emphasise it more. We've seen many years of Indian progress, and that is attributable to the energy and genius of the Indian people and the Indian culture.

I was one of the people responsible for the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur. And the students that were brought there were part of my hope. What I didn't foresee was that they'd also be indispensable in the US. What came to be called Silicon Valley was largely an overseas colony of Indians.

Isn't it a shame that they have to come here to succeed?
Oh no, that's normal. It may well be that quite a few of them are happier in California than they would be in Old Delhi. I regard national identity as one of the more questionable qualities of mankind. I want a world where all are participants, all are equal. There's a little prejudice there. After all, I'm a Canadian by origin who has taken on somewhat active a part in American political and cultural life. I wouldn't want to see foreigners excluded from Harvard or from Washington. It would've had a very limiting effect on my life.

In that sense do you think we are becoming more of a borderless world?
Well, there are aspects of what is called globalisation that one can regret. The movement through the world as one great, inter-related community, is something I applaud. In my lifetime, there have been two great wars. Both of them stimulated, to some extent, by the assertion of national sovereignty and its importance. Indians, Russians, Americans are all citizens of the same globe. That's the way I want them to be considered. Too many people in my lifetime have died in expression of national sentiment.

Do you think the legacy of the British diluted India's character?
I have no doubt whatever that if you had to have an imperial master, it better be England. It was the good fortune of all the countries that have been part of the British empire. The British took colonialism very seriously, and brought an extraordinary talent to bear on it. I would only add that once having gone for a vacation in Goa, I have a very favourable view of the Portuguese. Charming place and charming people, responded to a good Portuguese Catholic upbringing.

As a nation with 80 per cent Hindus, do you think India would've been better off as a Hindu nation?
Certainly not. I want to see diversity.It was the good fortune of India that there were so many people of different religions, different cultural backgrounds, and different national aspirations. It made India the interesting country that it is.

It's also added a major recreational aspect to Indian politics. Something to be talked about, something to be amused by, something to justify magazines such as the one this is being published in.

How do you view Indian priorities like the nuclear bomb, considering that India has so much illiteracy and poverty and disease and homelessness?
I regret it greatly, as I do for the US. The worst-single feature of modern politics is the willingness to accept human extinction on a large scale. That is true here. I regret it. I regret also the same tendency in India and Pakistan on a smaller scale.

Do you think the Indian people have failed India or the politicians have failed India?
Neither. They both have to be taken as they are. I don't distribute blame on such a purpose, in such a way.

Can you name three truly Indian personalities and three truly Indian contributions to the world?
Certainly not. One of the qualities of Indians is a personality of enormous adaptability, it extends all the way from a village in Uttar Pradesh to a suburb in New York. This wonderful adaptability rises far above any personal, any national characteristic that would exclude such adaptability and initiative.

(America's ambassador to India in the Kennedy years, 1961-63, Ontario-born Galbraith has 45 honorary degrees from universities worldwide, has authored some 27 books—including two novels—and is internationally known for his development of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics.)
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