When ideas become cages

Pakistan is stuck on India, and India is trapped in its own theories of society and economics.

Updated: March 1, 2014 5:25:57 am
India’s pantheon of nationalism is populated by a number of static ideas: anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, socialism and populist economics a la Aam Aadmi Party. India’s pantheon of nationalism is populated by a number of static ideas: anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, socialism and populist economics a la Aam Aadmi Party.

India’s pantheon of nationalism is populated by a number of static ideas: anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, socialism and populist economics a la Aam Aadmi Party. Given our changing world, these ideas have led to India’s isolation within an otherwise admiring international community. Pakistan’s nationalism is based on anti-Indianism — plus recent anti-Americanism “because America is tilting to rascally India”. Pakistan is internationally isolated because of this obsessive worldview.

Some Pakistanis blame the state for being non-pragmatic, sacrificing prosperity at the altar of its “India disease”, while in economic terms it is more “realistic” than India because of its pursuit of “free market” and IMF structural goals. Political leaders in India are rendered weak because of the breakup of India’s bipartisan system — or something resembling it, after the rise of the BJP. Now the focus is scattered and people vote for those who will give them welfare at the cost of budget deficits. The consensus in India is Kerala-model-based, not Gujarat-model-based.

Anti-colonialism, however, is flourishing in subaltern studies while Indian foreign policy is doing cool business with old colonisers and new imperialists. Some of its anti-globalisation policies — that look like protectionism posturing as pro-poor trade-barricading against “global exploitation” — are based on an interpretation of global capital that even post-Keynesian Amartya Sen will not buy and globalist Jagdish Bhagwati will abominate.

There is an Indian World Bank economist, Deepak Lal, whom I have admired for his boldness in challenging the embedded ideas of the nations that became free in the middle of the last century. His book In Praise of Empires: Globalisation and Order (2004) has been my guide in debunking bilious repetitions of “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism” in our political discourse.

I know I will be pilloried for my decadent intellectual apprenticeship to Lal, but I hear Pakistanis — propelled by religious fervour, unlike India — emetically theorising about how America is never going from Afghanistan because it has to colonise Central Asia for its natural resources.  Deepak Lal is chilled about the global economic space as “value-neutral”, which cannot be used to underpin an ideology. Before India became prosperous, global multinationals were seen as purveyors of imperial intrigue against homo indicus. America’s soft power through Hollywood films and fast food was seen as an encroachment on something essentially “sacred” and Indian that had to be saved. (Now Indian soft power through Bollywood is changing Pakistan’s “essentialism”, which has really come down to mean surrender to the Taliban as the fulfilment of Pakistan’s founding ideal.)

Globalisation is not new. It was cyclical and was carried on Alexander’s shield and the curved sword of the Mughals. Lal states that it “promoted those gains from trade and specialisation later emphasised by Adam Smit0h, leading to Smithian intensive growth. Thus, the Greco-Roman empires linked the areas around the Mediterranean, the Abbasid empire of the Arabs linked the worlds of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; the Mongol empire linked
China and Central Asia with the Near East; and the various Indian empires created a common economic space in  the subcontinent.”

But the first global empire was British, in the 18th and 19th centuries, creating a global economy and an international order. The imperium of the hegemon was hated by other nations but each progressed through being enslaved by imperial armies. The hatred of Rome, whose empire “declined” for nearly a thousand years, was genuine but today we give space to Roman institutions in our legal codes. Colonialism was the only way new ideas could be enforced. The other function the hegemon carried out was the creation of peace or “pax” a common economic space. Today, as the news about America’s decline spreads, most capitals are worried about global order.

Pakistan hates America (80 per cent), but in the past it could fight wars with India and survive because it was backing the hegemon. There was a time when the Indian man thought negatively of America, but today he loves America by the same overwhelming margin of opinion. India was transformed by the American-led “free world” where Indian migrants liked to settle rather than the walled utopia of its Cold War ally, the Soviet Union. Lal debunks the Indian socialist’s definition of capitalism: “It is based on the power of the economically strong to coerce the weak; it is fuelled by the ancient Christian sin of greed; it is necessarily corrupt, as the rich steal from the poor, leading to a growing concentration of economic and thereby political power in the hands of unelected and hence undemocratic captains of business who run the multinational companies which are the hallmarks of global capitalism.” But another World Bank economist, Surjit Bhalla, responds to this contention by dismissing tendentious statistics used to “support ideological conclusions about the state of the world.”

A recent book, The Poorer Nations,  by Vijay Prashad encapsulates the entrenched view: “The end of colonialism did not mean the complete end of imperialist domination but it did mark a change in the nature of empire. Tools that ensure the global economy serve the interests of those in power include control over international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.”
Some in Pakistan are following India, but from the Islamic point of view: Don’t privatise the colossally loss-making steel mill in Karachi because it is disallowed by a verse of the Quran. There is anti-colonial nationalism rampant in Pakistan, directed at America, especially after rascally Manmohan Singh took India  into a strategic partnership with the  evil hegemon.

Anti-imperialism seemed attractive in the past too. Pankaj Mishra in his recent book, From the Ruins of Empire: Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia, presents a very interesting portrait of the quintessentially anti-British hero of the Islamic world, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897), who thought Muslims of the world could rise as one nation by modernising themselves. Mishra tells us how unfair Afghani as a modernist was to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who looked at the British imperium as a civilising process and wanted Indian Muslims to lurch out of their pre-modern dreams by being good subjects. Tagore too liked the “spirit of the West” but hated the “nation of the West” because it taught the evil of nationalism to “innocent” India.
Afghani, praised by Pakistan’s national poet Muhammad Iqbal in his famous lectures, was a bit of a soldier of fortune, with a lot of traditional learning easing his entry into the Muslim societies of Turkey, India, Iran and Egypt. But he got his comeuppance in France where orientalist Ernest Renan, a much greater mind, told him prophetically that his claim that Muslims would ultimately turn to reason and modernity will never be proved right as the Muslims will defeat his thinking just as they had defeated and physically thrashed Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in the 12th century for having learned too much of Aristotle.

As aberrant America imports manufactured goods while outsourcing its own manufacturing to the nations it is supposed to exploit, in defiance of the old theory of raw material extraction, India is exporting its intellectual merit to the West. In the long term, this intellect will reward India with economic realism. Deepak Lal is one such intellect.

The writer is consulting editor,  ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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