Pankaj Mishra on The Clash Within

Pankaj Mishra reviews The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future by Martha C. Nussbaum in The New York Review of Books. Mishra not only reviews the book, but also provides an interpretation of the events in a short history capsule on Indian politics, economy, and media since Independence.

Unlike the West, Nussbaum's thesis is that India faces a clash and danger from within. There have been major changes in the Indian political and economic landscape in last decade and a half. The most salient being: the rise of religious and regional nationalism in form of the BJP and others, and the bewildering rate of growth, initially fueled by software.

His and Nussbaum's explanations for the rise of the BJP and changes wrought by their six years in power seem rather simplistic:

... after a string of successes throughout the Nineties in provincial elections, to gain power within a coalition government in New Delhi in 1998. Six years of the BJP's rule brought about deep shifts in Indian politics and the economy.

While it is true that the BJP did provide a vent to decades of simmering discontent and the urban middle-class and elite provided them support, most of the sweeping changes were more a result of adroit maneuvering in the face of mostly uncontrollable external global changes than implementation of agenda.

Apart from that quick explanation, Mishra and Nussbaum are right on many other counts. Mishra rightly states that India is a rather complicated exercise in democracy. A democracy in which, " ... India's leaders faced the problem of instituting a secular and democratic state before the conditions for it — an adequately large secular and egalitarian-minded citizenry, and impartial legal institutions — had been met."

While there is a lot of freedom in the Indian media, most papers rarely exercise that right and are have been reduced to a mere echo chamber. A fact that I as a blogger am familiar with since much of the blog world is mostly an echo chamber. Yet, the 'sensible' blog world is largely free from much of the idiotic fascinations of the Indian press. Cases in point: the overblown idea of 'global Indian takeovers' and co-option of anything that has the most vague connection to India (like Sanjay Malakar or Norah Jones).

One of the big accusations that Nussbaum via Mishra throws at us is that the new privileged generation of Indians lacks any 'identification with the poor'. The phrase is quite telling. For most us: the poor exist, something should be done about it, but for now, let's get rich and sustain the growth. The Maoist militancy in the hinterland and farmer suicides are reported but have not, for most of us, become a 'critical issue'. It can be safely said that most people of my generation, including myself, are well-meaning but we lack the necessary background and education to identify adequately with the poor. No one denies the starkness of contrast and the disastrous side-effects of the explosive nature of growth. But, mere acknowledgment of a problem does not equate to identification with it.

The other important point in the book and Mishra's essay is that mere transplantation of what has worked in America and Europe, and even China won't do. Chiefly, what I find missing from current debates on Indian economic and political policy is the lack of environmental considerations. As Mishra writes:
But it may be imperative for Indians, who, arriving late in the modern world, are confronted with the possibility that economic growth on the model of Western consumer capitalism is no longer environmentally sustainable.

For Mishra the 'trickle-down' theory of economic growth might be too slow to stem the grim outlook:
There are no easy ways out of the impasse — the danger of intensified violence and environmental destruction — to which globalization has brought the biggest democracy in the world.

Whatever your personal inclinations and prejudices may be, it is quite clear that Pankaj Mishra's voice rises above the current babble of the rabble.

1 comment:

Javed said...

Interesting post & thanks for the link to the review.I am reading 'India Unbound' by Gurcharan Das and he has emphasised more about the economic policies after independence and how they have affected us. According to him although India was successful to bring in the democratic style of goverance, due to Nehru's socialist outlook we had to suffer since privatization was put on the back-burner until the 1991 reforms.
I completely agree when you say that India faces internal clashes which can tear it's secular fabric and that the young don't identify with the poor. In fact I think we don't like to be identified with anything which is something sad.