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Superman Never Returns

India can go ape—or it can learn to talk to itself and the world

Superman Never Returns
Gireesh G.V.
Superman Never Returns
For some years now, the English press has treated us to such headlines as 'India, the Next Superpower', 'India's Global Takeover', or 'Bollywood Fever Sweeps the West'. This enthusiasm has even infected American and European policymakers and journalists who, increasingly wary of China, seem to be hoping for a likeable Asian counterweight to the inscrutable Middle Empire.

For much of its 60 years of existence, India appeared in the Western press as a land of maharajahs, beggars and deluded socialists. Abruptly now, Time, Newsweek and Foreign Affairs hail India as a 'roaring capitalist success story', hoping that the country will be the US's new 'strategic partner'.

Plainly, the American business and foreign policy establishments have no choice but to seek new markets and allies in an uncertain post-9/11 world. As always, their geopolitical calculations are marked by wishful thinking. Faced with imminent decline, great powers like the US become particularly prone to ideological illusion. But why should we—a big but largely poor country with a superpower complex—deny our own reality?

It is tempting to bask in the glory of a 'rising' India—indeed there is much money to be made out of peddling that image. But most writers and intellectuals know that the truth about a place as big and diverse as India is always multi-faceted. Hoping to provide some nuance to recent discussions on India, I recently published an article in the American press. I pointed out a few obvious facts: the poor state of public health and primary education, the high unemployment rate, the minuscule proportion of Indians working in IT and business processing industries (1.3 million out of a labour force of 400 million), the deep agrarian crisis, and the rise of militant Communism in some of the poorest parts of India.

No sooner had the article been published than responses began to flood in. Many aid and NGO workers working to alleviate rural poverty, disease and illiteracy wrote to express their gratitude that I had acknowledged at least some of the problems they confront every day. Other messages conveyed, mostly politely, their disagreement with my implicit belief that India—and China—have to make their model of economic growth both politically and environmentally sustainable.

But most people who wrote angrily accused me of bringing shame upon India by washing her dirty linen in public. Not surprisingly, these letters were either from Indians in America, who long for the India they left behind to become a superpower, on a par with the country in which they presently live, or from the generation and class of Indians who have benefited from India's integration into the global economy. These globalised Indians evidently wish to identify themselves with Indian achievements and American power; they seemed convinced that I am a deluded socialist and anti-globalisation activist, in addition to being a dedicated hater of Hindus and India.

I have grown accustomed to such outbursts. But they still puzzle me, partly because I think of myself as part of the generation of Indians privileged by globalisation. India, where I have spent most of my life, is not only a perennially complex and enriching subject for me; it also gives me a place in the world and I feel bound to the country in many ways, not all of which are expressible. The Indian nation-state may be only 60 years old but there is an even longer and more continuous entity: the Indian civilisation to which belong most of my heroes, the Buddha, Ashoka, Gandhi and Tagore.

The breathtaking originality and sophistication of these thinkers and activists long convinced me that the country in which they flourished has something more profound to offer to the world than its ability to imitate the consumer societies of the West. Imbued with this confidence, I am startled by the insecure and anxious nationalism I often find among many well-educated Indians: a self-esteem that is evidently so fragile that it can be undermined by a single dissenting article in the New York Times. It becomes imperative then to examine this expectation of Indian greatness, and the role assigned in it to writers and intellectuals.

At almost every level this nationalism seems to stem from a desire to achieve the kind of full-spectrum dominance the United States enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when American presidents shaped world events, American CEOs as well as Hollywood stars became global celebrities, and the American neo-liberal ideology of capitalism appeared the terminus of history.

History, however, has moved on. Its military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, its international credibility shattered, and its economy massively indebted to China, the United States is struggling to hold on to its pre-eminent status. Challenges to neo-liberalism arise within its own Latin American neighbourhood. The increasing self-confidence of China, the independence of the EU, the intransigence of Russia, and the open disdain of Iran, Venezuela and North Korea, show plainly the limits of American power and ideology.

The strong recent challenges to America tell us that we have entered a multi-polar world which no single economic and cultural power can dominate. In other words: though there is much to admire in India's recent economic growth, and the growing prominence of Indian businessmen abroad, it is simply unrealistic to expect that Nandan Nilekani will be the new Bill Gates, or Karan Johar the next Steven Spielberg. (Even Shilpa Shetty will never be as famous for being famous as Paris Hilton.)

Indian influence over a multi-polar world is unlikely to be as great as the one the US or UK knew. And though playing junior partner to the American corporate and political elite may be what some globalised Indians and Indian-Americans desire, it won't much help India reckon with its own great problems of poverty and inequality. Nor will it help India deal with the biggest challenges that almost every major developing country faces today: how to accommodate ethnic and religious minorities within nation-states; how to make democracy more representative, and free of special-interest groups; how to shape an equitable and environmentally sustainable model of economic growth.

Happily, few countries seem more intellectually equipped than India. Travelling in China recently I met many academics and writers who confessed to me their envy of such Indian thinkers as Ashis Nandy, Arundhati Roy and Amartya Sen who could eloquently criticise the status quo in world politics and economy and outline a new vision of human possibility. Indeed, the global Indian intelligentsia comprising of writers, economists, historians, sociologists and political theorists is as much, if not more, impressive than the much written-about 'pool' of Indian scientists and engineers.

And the Chinese are right to admire it. Though tested by political and economic instability on a massive scale, the political temper of India's intellectual class has remained largely liberal and tolerant—an admirable fact given that a relatively brief and limited experience of terrorism and immigration has swung large sections of the intelligentsia in western Europe and America to the Right. But how much do the Indians readying themselves for a global takeover value their artists and intellectuals?

The easy temptation, of course, is to enlist writers in English—rather, their publishing advances—in the parade of Indian achievers in the West. Self-congratulation in the English-language media matches well the sarkari view of the uses of art and the intellect. A newspaper article on the Frankfurt Book Fair last year spoke of how Indian diplomats plan to use India's internationally famous artists and intellectuals in a 'qualitatively new emphasis on the projection of India's soft power'. A cultural bureaucrat was quoted as saying, "There is a need to leverage this strength to reinforce the strategic foreign policy objectives of the government."

The jargon sounds impressive. But it hides a genuine confusion about the relation between the state and the life of the mind. Those of us who are awestruck by American realpolitik rhetoric about combining 'soft' with 'hard' power may find it useful to remember that hardly any respectable American writers have ever lent themselves to the strategic objectives of their government. The lasting monuments of American culture—whether those created by Saul Bellow or by Bob Dylan—emerged not so much as a celebration of American power as from a tradition of self-critical reflection.

Sixty years after independence, India engenders a rich intellectual and artistic life; the fact rightly calls for celebration. But it's still important to remind ourselves how writers and intellectuals would best serve the cause of India's greatness: by speaking frankly about the new historic tasks and responsibilities that await the country, and by dispelling fantasies and delusions that lie in her path.

(Mishra's most recent book is Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond)
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