November 19, 2006


This is a really nice article in the Hindu by Bhikhu Parekh. Of late one can easily notice a strong desire to become an economic and military superpower among privileged Indians. This desire might have been there always, but only recently there are indications that it is realistic. The enthusiasm about the nuclear weapons, the self-congratulations about economic progress attest to this. As Parekh writes, by its very nature this desire is very elitist and embarrassing. It is elitist because it does not consider India's underprivileged (its fulfilment is altogether independent of any improvement of the living standards of India's poor) and it is embarrassing because it reveals a subtle second-handedness.
As Condoleezza Rice put it with a shrewd understanding of India's driving ambition, the U.S. will "will make you great." Some of our leaders and most of our media enthusiastically welcomed this patronising and even perhaps offensive remark. Hardly any of them bothered to ask how greatness can be given by others, and whether a country that acquires it in this way does not remain perpetually mortgaged to them.

I feel troubled by this vision, for several interrelated reasons. First, it is born out of fear and frustration: fear of being bypassed by history and overtaken by China, frustration at being ignored or patronised by others. It is other-determined, and does not spring from our own autonomous choices based on a careful assessment of the available alternatives.

He also rises a valid point about India's middle class. In my own experience I found an average middle class Indian to be totally devoid of any intellectual curiosity. The newly, and often easily acquired, prosperity is only exasperating this situation. The concerns which animate them are what restaurants to dine in, what cars to buy, what clothes to wear, what cell phones to buy etc.

Unlike most western societies in which middle classes played a socially and culturally revolutionary role, ours remain intellectually superficial, culturally dilettante, and politically apathetic to the plight of their underprivileged countrymen. Recent surveys suggest that the reading habits of most of them remain disappointingly shallow. Few read serious literature even in their own languages or patronise the arts, and many of them find even the newspaper editorials and the declining group of serious columnists intellectually challenging.

As a country we can not "spend" our way to greatness. We have regain or reawaken our character and this has nothing to do with how much salary a call center employee gets or how many nuclear weapons we have.


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