//A new sort of superpower

A new sort of superpower

Pankaj Mishra, Monday 30th January 2006

Introduction – India’s dream of national strength and wealth is now a reality: its superpower status is indisputable. Yet it is rejecting cultural uniformity, writes Pankaj Mishra. It will be a long time before it is fully modern – and this may be a very good thing

In recent weeks in India, a senior police officer appeared at a court hearing wearing anklets, a nose-ring and a dupatta, and claiming that he was Radha, the romantic consort of the Hindu god Krishna. Accused of "breaching the police dress code and service rules", he was forced to take voluntary retirement. In another incident, airport security prevented a spiritual guru from boarding a flight with his silver-coated staff. His incensed supporters staged a protest, provoking a brutal police response.

Both events occasioned some scorn and breast-beating in the English-language Indian media. "What," many people asked, "do we do with such irresponsible fools?" The larger burden of complaint seemed to be: why do we remain so backward? Why can’t we behave like a modern, rational country?

This reaction was predictable. Much of the English-language media expresses the Indian middle-class dream of wealth and national strength. It upholds free-market capitalism, a secular state and a nuclear-armed army. It sees India as the paramount power of the 21st century; it tends to be embarrassed by anything that makes Indians seem a chaotic, superstitious lot.

Many middle-class Indians are enamoured of authoritarian nation states such as Singapore, Malaysia and China, which they believe have achieved a high degree of discipline and efficiency. These Indians, who tend to vote for the Hindu nationalist BJP, believe that democracy causes chaos, disunity and waste in India, and prevents the country from assuming its rightful place in the elite of modern, developed nations.

The historical lessons these Indians draw from Europe and east Asia are at least partly based on fact. Most countries have become modern nation states by breaking with their ethnically and culturally diverse pasts and imposing, usually undemocratically, a certain sameness of behaviour and manner on their citizens. The fundamental idea that shapes modern bourgeois societies is that human beings are rational individuals, pursuing the dream of the good life made possible by ample possessions and leisure: an ambition that government and business should help fulfil.

Such an exclusively materialist world-view is the implicit ideology of the middle class in most western countries; it underpins the political, economic and legal arrangements of modern societies in general. Supported by corporate capitalism, it also gives western societies their relatively uniform character: a limited variety of public roles, modes of dress, food and entertainment.

This materialist ideology becomes especially widespread as societies grow affluent and more people come to enjoy the amenities of the middle class. It also helps create political consensus around important issues, especially during times of war when enemies, real or imaginary, seem to threaten the good life. It partly explains why political parties once deeply and bitterly divided increasingly sound alike, or why David Cameron resembles Tony Blair, and the Democrats in the United States repeatedly fail to distinguish themselves from the Republicans.

But the middle class in India is still small, outnumbered by peasants, the working class and the destitute. Its self-legitimising ideology of modernisation and secularisation, though institutionalised by the state and upheld by major political parties, has to compete with older, apparently irrational, traditions of asceticism, hedonism and devout religiosity.

India is crucially different in this respect from China, where powerful modernisers, both communist and non-communist, have systematically destroyed older traditions in the past hundred years, and helped the country become a more eager imitator than India of western patterns of work and consumption.

Many different worlds coexist in India, and together they keep centralising and homogenising influences in check. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Indian politics, an extremely crowded and changeable realm of many parties, groups and affiliations. In recent years, strong regional and caste-based parties managed to restrain the wilder ambitions of the Hindu nationalists. The communist parties, irrelevant elsewhere in the world, are an important presence in India today. They work as an important pressure group within the Indian parliament, challenging, and often diluting, the pro-rich policies of the government.

This diversity extends to the economic realm. Much publicity has been given recently in both the domestic and international press to information technology and call-centres in India, making them appear the engine of the new Indian economy. But such west-oriented businesses comprise a very small fraction of the overall Indian GDP, which is produced largely by people engaged in appeasing the demands of hundreds of millions of Indian consumers.

Foreign brand names count for relatively little here. Hollywood movies have never amounted to more than 5 per cent of the Indian film business; jeans and skirts are as far as ever from replacing the sari or the shalwar kameez as the preferred garment of Indian women. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut may represent glamour to the Indian elite but have failed to supplant the fast food that has been available in India for centuries – the samosa, or the southern Indian idli; and Indians prefer paneer over mozzarella on their pizza. Anyone, Indian or foreign, trying to run a successful business in India has to acknowledge the great diversity of Indian tastes in food, clothing and entertainment, rather than impose on Indians a standardised, international version.

Much of the business news the Indian media provide is written for, and from the perspective of, big businessmen and shareholders. You wouldn’t learn much about the work of India’s numerous unions and small industries from them. But the power of corporate capitalism and brand advertising, so palpable in the UK high street, is largely confined to the five biggest cities. The small entrepreneur, the locally made and ecologically sound product and traditional arts and crafts still flourish to a remarkable degree.

And almost every day the newspapers carry signs of individual resistance to a homogenising modernity. The police officer donning the robes of Radha is not only self-consciously harking back to Wajid Ali Shah, the last great ruler of Awadh, who also dressed up as Radha and whom the British denounced as effeminate before deposing him. In his androgynous dress, he is also rejecting the role required of him by a hard, hyper-rational world.

The spiritual guru refusing to part with his holy staff is claiming his right to individual dignity of a higher order than that provided by a national security state which spouts endless nonsense about "terrorism" and requires its citizens to live with constant paranoia and fear. India today is full of such "irresponsible fools". They hint why the country will not be fully modern for a long time, and why this may be a very good thing.

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world (Picador). Temptations of the West will be published this spring