May 25, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

A marketable nation

The early verdict on relations between New Delhi and the new administration in Washington is unequivocally positive. The Republican line has always been viewed as more favourable to India, in contrast to Democratic wavering and ambiguity. Amidst US conflict with China over a number of issues and with Bush's enthusiasm for National Missile Defence finding a rare quarter of support in India, the future of relations between the largest democracies appears bright. As many have observed, India is emerging as a player in international relations, and is likely to be increasingly acknowledged as such.

No doubt the Bharatiya Janata Party sees political virtue in furthering this. As Tehelka recedes into the expected abyss of an indifferent legal system, and with a national government that appears to have weathered the electoral storms just past, the challenge for New Delhi lies in building on the foundations already erected. Administrations everywhere develop alliances of familiarity; to ensure their endurance, the positives derived from the foreign minister's many visits or Richard Armitage's friend-seeking mission must be cemented over time.

Certainly the alliances now taking shape are more in line with the natural order of society in the two nations, and easily maintained by shared concerns. For India, however, the promise of greater standing in the family of nations can be brought to fruition only when an independent position on important matters is taken seriously.

To all appearances, ironically, the BJP is an unlikely stalwart of global geopolitics, and instead the obvious champion of Indian nationalism and its particular self-interest. Strange, then, that acceptance has come not in acknowledgement of our own positions, but in recognition of the advantages Indian friendship holds for others.

This is both predictable and unfortunate. A political organization that draws inspiration from history -- even its own version of it -- finds itself shackled by the times. Rather than wield the weapons of democratic opinion building to advantage, the BJP has remained awkward and limited in packaging its messages. Devoid of the language of modernity, and apparently at odds with an increasingly liberated populace, the governing party sees its future aspirations derived entirely from delivering economic opportunities to the people, and in trenchant faith.

This is a self-imposed failing, and a familiar one.

Conservative parties in other societies have plunged unerringly down this path to their complete doom. In America and Europe, for example, the cultural traditionalists are often regarded not merely as exclusive or bigoted, but additionally as uninformed.

In democracies, the rational pursuit of information has acquired enormous momentum among the opinion-making intelligentsia. In this environment, adherence to unchallenged views, as is usually the case with religion, is automatic grounds for dismissal from any sphere of importance except right-wing politics. Even in less tolerant societies, notably the Islamic ones, where knowledge itself is seen as a challenge to faith, the irrelevance of the faithful outside their limited environs is acquiring the force of legend.

To all appearances, India is the nation most likely to be an exception to these familiar patterns; this should be apparent to those who would draw political mileage from culture. In a society where doctrinaire faith has failed to take hold except among a small minority, religious conduct is accepted to be of personal nature. Even among those who exhort us to Hindutva from rooftops of saffron, the urging holds no specifics; one is free to worship a thousand different gods and remain Hindu. Conflict over the nature of the faith itself is mostly theological and holds little value to the actual practice of it by individuals.

Second, and even more important, knowledge is not apparently contradictory to presumptions of the past. DNA do not challenge an original conception, contraceptive habits do not incur the wrath of doctrine-peddlers, cosmic patterns beamed back from distant satellites do not appear to violate the plans of a universal god. The religious establishment -- to the small degree that this even exists -- is not assumed to have any authority to speak of matters beyond the practice of belief; what a shankaracharya thinks of cloning, for example, is not just beside the point, it is understood quite directly that he can have little understanding of it, an assertion not as easily made -- politically speaking -- about figureheads of many other faiths.

There is an intellectual dimension to this realization, but also a popular one. The former understands the force of modernity and its obvious power to overturn obstacles of doctrine; the latter is necessary to imbibe a distinctly Indian culture with the celebratory power needed to compete in a marketplace of ideas. The essence of this modernity is in understanding the difference between the popular and the traditional. The value of the popular lies not in greater respect for faith, but in its more widespread acceptance than the traditional. Devotional music from cinema is a fine example; movie-makers from Walt Disney to Mani Rathnam have recognized the value of repackaging to popularize the orthodox.

History records a time that has passed. The insistence on merely retaining its memory in modernity consigns that view to its dustbin. Instead, what is needed is for Indian-ness to don the mantle of marketability, and be regarded as accessible to a wide spectrum of people in much the same way that Western society has staked its claim. The notion of Indian thought and identity inseparable from the motherland is limiting not just to national interest but to the nature of Indian-ness itself. The subtlety of differentiation, if embraced by the ruling party, can both advance its own objectives and serve the nation simultaneously.

That the external affairs ministry would receive Vajpayee's particular attention was always believed, given the PM's past offices. The foreign minister's travels have done much good to advance the Indian view on important international issues. Events in other nations have occurred at opportune moments, and our opinions have found more willing ears than in times past.

The natural progression should now be evident, and purposefulness in traversing this path is essential. What began as a mission to merely define the Indian position must morph into a strategic effort to advance it.

The easiest path to such transformation lies in promoting particular Indian positions as essentially universal in nature, and separate from their apparent advantages to India. Such deliberate packaging of national interests for presentation to audiences other than in India is necessary to obtain and maintain support for Indian positions. This is the defining character of all memorable societies, whether they be Athenian, Kalinga or American. A ruling party obsessed with its memory of a bygone India cannot remain oblivious to the opportunity to recreate history in the image of the present.

We are the people we appear to be.

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A more pro-active policy, please?

Ashwin Mahesh

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