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February 25, 1998


Rajeev Srinivasan

A case for pragmatism

A neo-liberal manifesto: nationalism, equality, moderation, pragmatism, a bias for action, and enlightened self-interest

As part of the election brouhaha, every political party has released its manifesto lately. On looking through them, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it is old wine in new bottles: generally the same old, tired, empty, populist slogans that have long since ceased to have any meaning; mantras that are spouted ritualistically with no substance behind them; positioning that the marketing consultants have assured party big-wigs the electorate will lap up.

It is entirely clear that India suffers from a bankruptcy of ideology. Both the traditional liberal and conservative approaches have become superfluous: they are reactive, not visionary. Is there, though, a cogent, articulable set of values that is evolving, even if largely hidden today? I believe so, and I call it neo-liberalism. I shall try to articulate it below.

The Indian enterprise is floundering for lack of direction: India once had a goal -- and that was independence. Once Independence was achieved, Indians have proceeded to drift aimlessly: which is what India did in most of its past, laying it open to external threats. The major difference today, of course, is that we have, to some extent, a pan-Indian sensibility of nationhood. India needs a new, supra-ordinate goal.

Gandhi's way, it appears sadly, is not acceptable to the average, selfish, materialistic human being. Nehru's way has been tried, and its result is the grotesque present. Maybe what we need to now look at is Bose's way, Patel's way: uncompromising nationalism. It is quite simple: I will not let my nation come to harm by my actions, or by my inaction. While neo-liberals are aware of the dangers of nationalism run rampant, all successful nations are almost tautologically nationalistic.

In an insightful article on geopolitics, the Economist considers (in a January article) the prerequisites for global power status by the year 2030. It lists four criteria: long-range military power, efficient foreign-policy machinery, public support for a vigorous foreign policy, and material interests abroad. Not surprisingly, the US and China come out tops in this analysis. They don't even consider India, and here is their rationale:

'For all its near-billion population, its should-be booming economy and its admirably efficient army, India always seems to be held back by something -- its fragile sense of national identity, the geographical isolation of the Indian subcontinent between mountains and sea, maybe the inward-looking nature of the Hindu religion -- from becoming the sort of country that strides confidently on the world stage.' Precisely what the neo-liberal wishes to turn around. Striding confidently, that is our vision of India. Forget the laughable pursuit of a Security Council street -- what a wasted effort!

The neo-liberal perspective is a forward-looking, patriotic, eclectic, inclusive, proactive, pragmatic ideology that is perhaps best exemplified by expatriates who have experienced the shock of looking at India from overseas; and also the shock of experiencing other cultures with all their warts, and all their advantages. Most of all, we can learn from the mistakes and experiences of other ideological trend-setters, for example the neo-conservatives of the US.

American neo-conservatives supplied much of the brainpower behind the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Republicans in the 1980s. Many of these neo-conservatives are former liberals, often Jewish. After forming an alliance with blacks during the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, these Jewish activists have steadily moved rightwards, and are now squarely in the opposite ideological camp. With entirely good, well-thought-through reasons.

It is said that a neo-conservative is a liberal who has just been mugged! There is distressing truth to this flippant remark. I guess I would say a neo-liberal, in the Indian context, is one who has just been mugged, so to speak, by the so-called 'progressives'! This has been my personal experience. As a person with subaltern leanings, I naturally gravitated towards the apparently brave and loquacious Indian 'progressives', who are essentially Nehruvians, especially when I was a student in the US.

The self-proclaimed 'progressives', especially in their Internet incarnation, provide an inviting facade. Their general demeanor is of compassion for all the downtrodden groups of India. Which is wonderful. They demonstrate against the Indian State's ill-treatment of women and religious minorities and AIDS patients, and against TADA, and environmental degradation, and so on and so forth. They inveigh against communalism. Constructive criticism: who could argue with that?

However, on observing 'progressives' for more than a decade, I have found a curious and disturbing phenomenon: they are, wittingly or unwittingly, anti-national. In their commendable zeal to oppose, as they see it, extremist Hindus and the 'monstrous' Indian government, they enter into dangerous liaisons, for example, with front organisations for anarchists, separatists, Semitic fundamentalists, nihilist Maoist/Stalinists. I am appalled and saddened.

One Biju Mathew who railed against the Hindu Students Council in a recent tirade on Rediff is the archetypal 'progressive'; I have observed this character metamorphose from someone with vaguely liberal ideas to an out-and-out adversary of the Indian State. The fellow has been shouting so shrilly for so long that he fails to recognise that he has become a caricature: for he is working assiduously against the interests of the nation, against the very millions he purports to support.

I have a small request to make of these 'progressives' pontificating from the US. Please go to San Francisco, and visit the Gadar Memorial Hall at 5 Wood Street . This is a memorial to the hundreds of Indian expatriates who suffered greatly, who were persecuted by the Americans, and many of whom were executed by the British when they went to India to support the cause of independence.

There are ancient photographs on the walls. Look into the eyes of these dead men with unknown names like Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingale -- both students at Berkeley, hanged by the British for 'sedition'. They sacrificed everything for India; and then your 'progressive' lot ensured that freedom came ''not in full measure'', as Nehru said. Now don't you dare spit on the blood, sweat and tears of these martyrs!

I once read a story, The Man Without a Country, the infinitely sad story of an American who voluntarily denounces his country and gives up his citizenship. He is the object of great pity -- Americans can never fathom why anyone in their right minds might not wish to become citizens of their great country. I feel the same way about Biju Mathew: how sad it must be not to have a country! A superb specimen he is, of that delightful species, the Non-Resident Non-Indian.

The Internet is quite infamous for the variety of semi-lunatic voices that attack Hinduism: Everyone from frothing-at-the-mouth-Pakistanis to unctuous-oily-missionary-Holy-Roller-white-guy types to seriously-self-hating-nominal-Hindus to deranged-Stalinists-spouting-Mao-Red-Book-turgid-slogans to rabid Dravida-Kazhagam types whose criticism of Hinduism centres on the Aswamedha Yagna (no, I'm not making this up). Apparently it's known that Hindus do not retaliate.

As a leader of the noisy and vacuous soi-disant 'intellectuals' whose verbal diarrhea is a ghastly feature of the Internet newsgroup, Biju Mathew, if I remember correctly, was used by 'Asia Law', reportedly a front for Arab fundamentalists, as a facade for their attacks on India and on Hindus. Biju Mathew's vision, from his grandiose rhetoric, appears to be quite simple: the only good Hindu is a dead Hindu. Converted Hindus are probably okay, but just barely.

Someone who read a draft of this article asked me why I was wasting so much space on one solitary individual, Biju Mathew. For two reasons: one, because Biju Mathew-like 'progressives' are dangerous, thoughtless, outlier, lunatic-fringers, despite their air of inoffensiveness -- they need to be exposed for the frauds they are. They are not the solution; they are part of the problem.

Second, because Biju Mathew is a Christian, people, including me, suffused with political correctness, are reluctant to attack him. But this is nonsense: being a Christian is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for idiocy. No, it is merely that Biju Mathew as an individual is a rotten egg; his religious minority status has nothing to do with it.

'Progressives' try to ignore the fact that the suppression of the legitimate religious aspirations of a people will cause great harm. Just take a look at Algeria today: denying the Islamists a say in things has caused some 120,000 deaths and created an ungovernable state. I am afraid the Nehruvian political establishment has been denying legitimate Hindu aspirations for so long that an explosion can scarcely be contained now.

On reflection, the 'progressives' are treading a path trodden many times in India's past. Indians have a genius for betraying their countrymen to the foreigner, as my eloquent friend Varsha Bhosle pointed out recently. When Alexander of Macedonia attacked King Pururavas in 327 BCE, King Ambhi of Takshasila helped the Greeks. Jayachandra of Kanauj betrayed Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain in 1192 CE, and Mohammed of Ghori won. At Plassey in 1757 CE, Mir Jafar betrayed Siraj-ud-daula and helped Robert Clive win.

Treachery is a luxury India cannot afford any more. There was also a tragic lack of vision. I have asked many people: why is there no Great Wall of India? Nobody seems to know. Indians knew with absolute certainty that every now and then invading barbarians -- from Alexander onwards -- would come over the Khyber and Bolan passes. But with a crisis in leadership, and petty rivalries, there was never a single-minded strategic purpose to defend ourselves against aliens.

Therefore, the first item in the neo-liberal's agenda is a national purpose. Without basic territorial integrity and security, India is not going anywhere. India has already experienced, at China's hands, a stunning and shocking defeat, attributable entirely to 'progressive' naivete and muddle-headedness. India's antagonists and rivals on the world scene have all articulated their united national purpose with clarity: it is time for India to do the same. Neo-liberals are unrestrained hawks.

My thoughtful neo-liberal friend Bapa Rao suggests a doctrine of Pax Indica in the Indian Ocean. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: India is clearly the pre-eminent power among the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. If it were to declare its intent to dominate the waterways (of course backed up with a blue-water navy), I believe the US, Japan, China, the European Union, ASEAN, and other powers would be forced to respect that. In particular, ASEAN and Japan would actually welcome the counterweight to muscle-flexing China.

Pax Indica fits well into the strategic division of the world into zones of influence: note Samuel Huntington's thesis on the clash of civilisations. Given the Agni (2,000 miles in range) and satellite command and control, India can indeed seriously inconvenience anybody in the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea. This is one of the reasons the US has tried so hard to cripple India's ballistic missile, nuclear and space programmes.

Americans would prefer it if they could send the Seventh Fleet steaming into the Bay of Bengal with impunity, as they did in 1971. And indeed their base at Diego Garcia is also vulnerable to the Agni. Now it would be extremely foolish for India to attack American warships or naval bases, thus inviting certain, massive and punitive retaliation. However, the fact that India *could* is the essence of preventive deterrence.

But having a nationalist perspective, some backbone in other words, does not in any way reflect xenophobia. It is merely the pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Let me quote Mahatma Gandhi on that: 'I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.'

The neo-liberal believes, on the other hand, in seeking wisdom from everywhere; and choosing judiciously that which is appropriate to the Indian context. As I believe Rabindranath Tagore said, there is no harm in inviting ideas from everywhere. Or as the Rig Veda says, 'There is One, but wise men call It by different names.'

Neo-liberals believe in an inclusive 'big tent' that can accommodate those of varying views, because they share an underlying vision of constructive criticism and unyielding loyalty to the country. This involves sometimes making common cause with liberals, sometimes with conservatives. For ideology is not the issue; that which works in practice is what is needed.

The neo-liberal eschews fundamentalist dogma of all kinds; because it is hardly likely that any belief system could anticipate all possible futures. Any belief system is obsolete almost as soon as it is codified; thus the only thing one can depend on is the idea that everything changes; we can count on the need for mid-course corrections based on changing circumstances. Pragmatism, not dogmatism, is the neo-liberal watchword.

Rajeev Srinivasan, continued


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