Rediff Logo News Star News Banner Find/Feedback/Site Index

February 26, 1998


Rajeev Srinivasan

A Case for Action

Unfortunately, the typical liberals and conservatives in India unthinkingly adopt the entire canon of a particular belief system: it does not appear to occur to people that they might, broadly speaking, adopt a particular perspective, while frankly criticising, rejecting, or reforming its undesirable aspects. The problem is essentially a fundamentalist and intemperate embrace of an entire dogma.

For example, the Hindu right wing, although it has good ideas about the preservation of desirable aspects of Hinduism, seems unwilling to abandon casteism; or regionalism; or a hankering after some imaginary golden past. It remains to be seen if they can create a reformed, non-northern-caste-Hindu-dominated, non-Hindi-obsessed, inclusive, pluralistic Hinduism.

Similarly, the Marxists have appealing ideas about egalitarianism and the dignity of labour. Unfortunately, they cannot get away from unquestioning fealty to principles formulated by the Russians or the Chinese or the Cubans or whoever is flavor of the month. They go into contortions trying to explain why it is that nothing Marx said has ever come to pass, rather than critiquing him carefully: after all Marxist/Stalinist/Maoist ideas may not be appropriate in every context.

So also, the other Semitic paths offer useful things: Islam its unyielding principle of the brotherhood and equality of men; Christianity its practical sense of charity and service. Accepting that these are good things should be no reason to also take on as gospel the various obscurantist and sometimes laughable beliefs they have. Take what is good, and reject or reform what is inappropriate -- that seems so sensible and logical!

The neo-liberal position, it is worth repeating, is based on enlightened self-interest; it accepts, adopts and absorbs. But the watchword in moderation. Fanaticism of all kinds is frowned upon; instead, an open and accepting attitude prevails. We welcome, critically, ideas from anywhere; but we will evaluate them all for what makes sense, and only the sensible ones will be adopted.

The neo-liberal believes that all of India's diverse peoples are important and worthy of respect. In the past, because of foolish casteist prejudice, we have wasted the talents of large numbers of our citizens. 'Full many a flower born to blush unseen': we have lost innumerable Kalidasas and Aryabhatas due to our own foolishness.

By making religious minorities, or certain Hindu castes, or people in certain regions, feel like second class citizens, we are setting them against the State. The neo-liberal wants a system where everybody in India is working towards a common purpose, one where everyone has a stake in the system, and thus wants to preserve it. We need to create a just society, 'with malice toward none, with charity toward all.'

To my rabidly anti-Muslim or anti-Christian Indian friends, let me ask you: What exactly do you propose to do with them? They aren't going to disappear one fine day. Ethnic cleansing of 130 million people is so... messy, wouldn't you agree? So do co-opt them; we need Verghese Kuriens, not Biju Mathews. Do accept that they too have rights as first-class citizens in India. Do ensure that they would rather defend India than destroy it.

To my rabidly anti-Hindu Indian friends, let me ask you: do you realise India is your home of last resort, and that it is so because of the unquestionable generosity of Hindus? You might be thrown out of America if fanatical Pat Robertson types come to power. You might be kicked out of Arab states even if you are a Muslim, because you are still an Indian. But then you will still be able to come back to India -- you will be welcome, just as persecuted Jews, Zoroastrians and Tibetans were.

The neo-liberal believes that Hinduism and an Indic (Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh) culture are primus inter pares, first among equals, in India. Just as a Judeo-Christian culture is first among equals in the US, this, according to us, would be axiomatic in India. And that is simply the true meaning of secularism: equal treatment of all; and the majority will naturally have a strong say. Unlike the 'progressive' definition of some animal they call 'secularism', which essentially means the oppression of Hinduism.

This definition of 'secularism' has been foisted on India by Stalinist Nehruvians, and the backlash against it is what has brought the BJP so tantalisingly close to power. It is not appropriate to pick on Hindus, but it seems to be the norm in India. For instance, in Kerala, the Marxist government has brought a Bill to the legislature that would take over Hindu temples.

This is preposterous for two reasons: one, there are no similar plans to take over wealthy Christian churches or prosperous Muslim mosques; two, it is outrageous that those of a competing religion (Marxism) get to dictate what Hindus do. How would the Pope react if the Vatican Council of Cardinals were forced to take some Marxists on board? How would the Marxists like it if their Politburo were forced to include a few fanatical right-wing Hindus?

Along the same egalitarian lines, the neo-liberal is absolutely committed to social justice for the downtrodden. We know, for instance, that the affluence and comfort of the urban middle classes has come at the expense of the landless, oppressed, downtrodden peasant; for example, the Andhra farmer who joins the People's War Group is uttering a cry of impotent rage. Land reform and concentration on the agricultural sector would be among the major socio-economic programs of the neo-liberal.

Furthermore, the disadvantaged sections of society certainly need a leg up -- the scheduled castes/tribes, backward communities, women. The neo-liberal is at a loss as to how to accomplish this other than through reservations: granted, it is a lousy system, but it is better than anything else on offer. Positive discrimination to level the playing field is a necessary evil. The scientific evidence shows that reservations indeed have helped create a creamy layer among the oppressed castes; the issue of the economically downtrodden, regardless of caste, is also a concern to the neo-liberal.

For, to continue to expect the dispossessed to take it lying down is foolish: the alternative to helping them advance is to push them into the arms of revolutionaries. And the examples of Peru's Sendero Luminoso or Uruguay's Tupamaro or our own home-grown Naxalites or the Zapatistas in Mexico show that armed rebellion has exceedingly unpleasant consequences for the bourgeoisie. The neo-liberal would rather deal with a Mayawati who stays within the Constitution -- difficult though she may be--than with an extra-constitutionalist like Kondapalli Sitaramaiah.

We need to look carefully at on-going caste issues as well. There are those, such as Kancha Ilaiah and the Ambedkar Foundation of Canada, who take a broadly tendentious stand: they claim, in essence, that Hinduism is racism. The neo-liberal rejects this self-serving, finger-pointing approach because it is fruitless. Hand-outs are not the right solution; we need a revolution of the mind.

Much better would be the approach of Sri Narayana Guru, who propelled his 'backward-caste' Ezhavas on the path to self-respect through their own efforts. 'Become enlightened through education; become strong through organisation; become wealthy through hard work,' exhorted he. And so they did.

When he was criticised, as a non-Brahmin, for consecrating a Siva idol, Narayana Guru replied, mildly, that it was only an 'Ezhava Siva': a devastating critique of unjust casteist shibboleths. This approach of assertive doctrinal innovation, of the 'lower castes' aggressively reclaiming their rights as Hindus, is something the professional complainers need to consider, instead of running to the UN asking for resolutions equating Hinduism with racism.

There is no point blaming 'upper castes' for taking advantage of a situation where they found themselves the possessors of absolute power. As is well known, power corrupts. But all of that is mostly of historical interest. Today, for the sake of the nation, it is essential that both so-called upper caste and lower-caste people work hand in hand towards the upliftment of all Indians.

Speaking of other traditionally oppressed Indians, the neo-liberal would push for a Marshall Plan for the North-East. Already physically and metaphorically on the fringe of the Indian enterprise, the only way it can be retained if the people there begin to see that they benefit concretely from being with India rather than separate -- once again, enlightened self-interest.

Today, because of the semi-colonial exploitation of the region by us plains-people, the mischief of secessionist missionaries and Pakistani and Chinese agents and the uncontrolled flood of Bangladeshis, the region is in grave danger. We have a Gujral Doctrine for truculent neighbors, surely the nation can create an urgent plan to bring Northeasterners back to the fold.

Generally, the neo-liberal believes in a strong role for the government, but only in areas where it really ought to be: in infrastructure, defence, fiscal policy, foreign affairs; and not in the 'commanding heights of the economy.' Neo-liberals support the on-going liberalisation of the economy, and would welcome foreign investment, partly with the express purpose of bringing in competition to comfortable domestic monopolies. We are not extreme economic nationalists.

In the aftermath of the Asian meltdown, the truism that Wall Street and global money managers are more powerful than mere governments seems to be more accurate than ever. Even such an establishmentarian as Jeffrey Sachs -- whose 'shock therapy' devastated Russia's economy -- was moved to declare that the IMF approach in Southeast Asia might hurt those countries.

It is true that intemperate integration with the global market is not necessarily the perfect solution. India has to proceed with caution, and neo-liberals would agree with the swadeshi crowd about being circumspect in opening up the insurance and financial services market to rapacious foreigners.

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to view all foreign investment with suspicion -- after all, the global branded consumer goods people have taken a bit of a beating from the unexpectedly strong showing by entrenched Indian competitors. Neo-liberals welcome foreign direct investments in general, but with caveats.

We would also look at FDI with, as it were, malice aforethought. Because we wish to do what the Chinese have done with outstanding success -- seduce foreign capital with a bait and switch. Bring them in, and then exploit them by a) absorbing their technology, b) having them invest so much that they cannot pull out without losing face. A fringe benefit of all this: the MNCs become fifth columnists for India in their home countries, lobbying for India and preventing anti-India moves.

Neo-liberals believe in the business concept of competitive advantage. India has certain core competencies, which is what we should emphasise. India should not try to manufacture everything here at home, but trade for things we need. Let us encourage those sunrise industries where we have a current or future advantage.

A quick analysis would show that India's best bets are in: value-added agricultural products, intellectual property (eg software), medical services, advertising and media services, jewelry, leather goods, automotive components, and to some extent, in weapons. We have sustainable global advantages in these areas, and not, for example, in shipbuilding.

For instance, India could be the world's biggest supplier of agricultural products -- even beating the US -- if our crops were properly cared for. India is already the world's second largest producer of both fruits and vegetables. But we suffer from lack of storage, lack of value addition, etc. An agricultural policy that supports the peasant in adding value -- not simply throwing money at subsiding rich farmers -- will yield rich dividends.

The neo-liberal perspective is not new; it is really quite similar to the views of a set of enlightened leaders of the early Congress party: the Moderates, people like Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru, M G Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The primary difference is that the neo-liberal is more of an internationalist, in the sense of being cognisant of, accustomed to, and unafraid of, the wider world.

The neo-liberal is entirely self-confident and deals with foreigners with neither deference nor alarm: not for us the craven worship of the utterings of some Commissar or Ayatollah or Pope; nor the fear of competing with an IBM or a General Motors or a Rupert Murdoch. For we have seen them, and know that they are not seven feet tall (okay, with the exception of Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal).

There was a major turning point in Indo-British relations in 1924. The Moderates then had a chance, according to historian Stanley Wolpert, to gain Dominion status for India, as a full, undivided nation. Malicious Brits had not yet thought up the brilliant idea of Partition; and Jinnah was not yet a secessionist. However, that possibility was torpedoed by Jawaharlal Nehru's unwillingness to compromise. What a lost opportunity, in hindsight!

The neo-liberal believes, absolutely, in action. Therefore, our icons are people like Baba Amte, Medha Patkar, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Sri Narayana Guru, Madhu Kishwar, Mohammed Yunus (of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank) -- visionaries and people of action at the same time. Empty talk is not worth much, is it? But these dedicated and determined people -- even if one doesn't necessarily agree with all their views -- have shown that just a few people can make a difference.

My neo-liberal friends in India are doing their bit to ease the travails of their fellow-countrymen. They are the people running literacy programmes for the underprivileged; those working as doctors in remote rural areas; those who, as environmentalists, look for sustainable exploitation of resources.

My neo-liberal friends overseas are influencing the multi-national corporations they work with to invest in India; they are trying hard to counterbalance the inevitably negative, frequently racist and always patronising perceptions of India with the positive messages of how India and Indians contribute to their host states and to the world at large.

To conclude then, the neo-liberal continues in the tradition of old-time Moderates, with a vision of India as a confident, self-aware nation: as Sri Aurobindo might have said. The neo-liberal goal is to develop a national purpose; a goal is the co-option of all Indians, with egalitarian dignity, into recognising that this nation gives them value, and therefore it is worth defending.

The neo-liberal refuses to kow-tow to the icons of any dogma, but chooses eclectically that which is appropriate in the local context. Unafraid of transnationals or the foreigner, the neo-liberal concentrates on exploiting them by leveraging his own competitive advantages. The neo-liberal seeks concrete action; words are not sufficient. Finally, the neo-liberal holds uppermost social justice for his fellow Indians, and works towards the making of a deontologically just society. That would be our Ram Rajya.

Rajeev Srinivasan

Tell us what you think of this column