On January 20, 2009, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, became the leader of the free world. The free world’s attention was focused elsewhere: Senator Barack Obama, who on that day became President Barack Obama, quietly abdicated the role now taken up by Dr. Singh, having run an election campaign premised upon the ever-present but never-quite-articulated proposal that the interests of the United States would be best served by such an abdication. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, global jihad, global financial crisis, Europe declining, China rising: It was all too much for a country whose aging population was beginning to press heavily upon its finances and institutions, public and private, a situation attested to by the fact that Bill Clinton, once synonymous with youthful vigor (with an excess of youthful vigor) was by that time eligible to begin collecting Social Security benefits.
India—poor, illiterate, violent, corrupt, backward, unstable, within living memory the hostage of a short-lived dictatorship—may not seem an obvious candidate to pick up the baton carried by the United States from December 8, 1941, until January 20, 2009, but pick it up it has, and it is far from fanciful to regard Dr. Singh as the leader of the free world. In all likelihood, his successor will play the same role. It would be helpful to know something about the civilization that produced him and the society that made possible the remarkable economic and social reforms with which he is associated.
To say that it is fruitful to study India is to say that it is fruitful to study India, which is a poor country in South Asia with a polity that was formalized in 1947, and is a different thing from “India,” a mystical place that exists largely in the Western imagination and is populated by cow-revering vegetarian pacifists who bear a striking resemblance to Ben Kingsley and do a great deal of yoga. “India” is the place from which malformed notions about Eastern spiritualism (whatever spiritualism means) emanate, the source of coffeehouse Buddhism, which is indistinguishable from coffeehouse Hinduism, which is indistinguishable from mush. With the exception of a relatively small number of Western educated Amrikan doods (the derogatory local term for Indians who out-American Americans), an Indian is quite apt to be lost in “India.” India, the actual India, is not the place to go to have long conversations about karma, unless you take the word in its literal sense, meaning work, something about which young India—median age twenty-six years—cares a great deal: Its unemployment rate today is roughly comparable to that of the United States and lower than that of many European Union countries, including France, but that rate does not tell the whole story: productivity per worker is up dramatically, while there has been a massive shift from public-sector to private-sector and from farm to non-farm employment. India’s economy is expected to grow by about 8 percent in the next year—a substantial achievement for an economy that is the fourth largest in the world by purchasing-power parity and the ninth largest in nominal terms.
Allow me an anecdote about the kind of karma most relevant to an American’s understanding of India. When I was working in India in the late-1990s—which is to say, when the economic-liberalization campaign designed by Dr. Singh while finance minister was coming into full flower under the governments of Narasimha Rao and the rather feckless agrarian H. D. Deve Gowda—my newspaper office, like most such offices, was superabundantly staffed by “peons,” meaning errand-boys. (The term “peon” did not, so far as I could tell, carry the sort of stigma among the peons that it communicates to sensitive democratic American ears.) This was particularly true of a branch office in Gujurat. There is an ethnic stereotype in India about Gujuratis, roughly analogous to the stereotype of Jews in the United States—that they are shrewd and entrepreneurial, and this certainly applied to our Gujurati peons, who bought candy and cigarettes and such on the street at discount prices and sold them in the office to reporters and editors either too lazy or too busy to step out themselves, and were therefore willing to pay the very large markup the peons applied to their retail trade.
Late one evening, walking past an otherwise empty office, I noticed a group of peons gathered around one of the computers. Seeing me, they quickly closed down whatever Web window they were viewing and scattered rodentially—I suppose they weren’t permitted to use the computers. Later, I saw the same group gathered guiltily around the same computer, and again they scattered upon noticing me. My curiosity was aroused. Upon inspecting the computer, I discovered that they had not cleared their browsing history. The boys were probably between fourteen and sixteen years old, and when I think of a fourteen-year-old boy scurrying away from a computer shamefacedly, I think of pornography, which is what I expected to find. In fact, the peons had been trying to figure out how to set up a trading account at an online brokerage, no doubt to invest their cigarette-and-candy profits. My already high opinion of the entrepreneurial energy of the Indian people was increased by one degree, and I do not much expect to find reason to revise it downward.
Americans habitually compare ourselves to the English-speaking peoples and, to a lesser extent, to the Western Europeans, and it is of course natural that we do so. Our northern neighbor, Canada, is part of the same civilization as the United States, whereas our southern neighbor, Mexico, is not. A short boat ride to Haiti lands an American in another world; an intercontinental jet flight to Australia lands an American in a supersized Texas. Our past is the past of England, but our future is not the future of England (assuming that England has a future as anything more than a place name, a proposition about which I have some doubt). Our future looks more like the future of India: India has the second-largest population in the world, the United States the third. India has a multiplicity of native languages undergirded by imported English; the United States has its native English slowly dissolving in a multiplicity of imported languages. Both countries are ethnically and religiously diverse, in spite of the nominal preponderance of one large religious group in each country. (“I believe in religious tolerance,” a member of the Hindu-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party once told me. “And India has religious tolerance because she is 85 percent Hindu, and not 85 percent Muslim.” It is notable that India has a sufficient number of practicing Hindu fascists to have rival Hindu-fascist political parties.)
An American well-acquainted with his own country and its challenges ought to be able to find his way around India circa 2011 without a great deal of difficulty. His English will get him as far in Bombay as it would in the Bronx, and farther, perhaps, than it would in Laredo or Nogales. He will encounter a robustly democratic body politic seeking, with mixed results, solutions to the problems of globalization and the economic disruptions associated with it, Islam and the violence associated with it, Chinese nationalism and the fears associated with it, etc. The principal difference is, from the vantage point of India, these are not only subjects to be read about in The Economist or seen in news footage from distant lands. India has China on one border, Pakistan on another, and in between 138 million Muslims, a not-insubstantial number of whom are in sympathy with their co-religionists waging jihad in Pakistan and Kashmir and elsewhere. Thus are the real threats faced by the United States amplified and made immediate in India.
Our imaginary threats are amplified in India as well: The American Right fears that a Palestinian-style intifada is just around history’s corner for the United States, and that its consequences will be catastrophic. India has been enduring a very high level of Islamic terrorism since Day One—before that, even—and has developed a mature if somewhat resigned attitude about the subject, which is a sign of confidence. Indians do not believe that they will be overrun by Islamists, or that their way of life is teetering on the edge of annihilation, certainly not to the extent that they would be prepared to expend a great deal of blood and treasure in the pursuit of fanciful “nation-building” campaigns in Pakistan or Sri Lanka. The American Left, particularly the academic Left, is enraptured by dark and masochistic fantasies about liberals’ political domination under the bootheel of the fascistic Christian fundamentalists of their imaginations, while the city of Bombay has long been ruled by an actual religious-fascist party, the Shiv Sena (“Shivaji’s Army”), named not for the Hindu deity but for the Marathi warrior-prince Shivaji Raje Bhonsle. A legendary figure who is one part George Washington and one part Charles Martel, Shivaji defeated the Mughal army of Afzal Khan at the Battle of Pratapgarh in 1659—think of it as India’s Battle of Tours—establishing Hindu self-rule, or swaraj, a concept about which I have more to say below.
The thing to discover about India—and I have not discovered it—is how it holds together. In India there is a culture in which the preponderance of historical and social forces is centrifugal, tending toward atomization. There is no national language. There are two official national languages. One, Hindi, is spoken mainly in the north and seldom spoken in the large southern section of the country. The other, English, puts India into deeper communion with the main intellectual and economic currents in the contemporary world (one of the many blessings for which even the most chauvinistic Indians are known to thank their English colonizers, if only in private), but does nothing to deepen Indians’ communion with their own ancient civilization(s). So hostile are some southern Indians to the Hindi language that they will demolish road signs written in it, and northerners are as helpless with the southern languages as if they had been reared in Chicago.
Prime Minister Deve Gowda, a southerner who did not speak Hindi, was roundly criticized by nationalists for giving speeches in English—“Don’t Force English on Hindi-Speaking People!” read one protest sign. Bowing to nationalist sentiment, Deve Gowda attempted to give a speech in Hindi, and it was a fiasco. A cartoon in the Indian Express the next day depicted a nationalist carrying a placard reading “Don’t Force Hindi on Hindi-Speaking People!” But of course the southerners do not equate the Hindi language with any kind of legitimate nationalism; indeed, southerners regard the Hindi-speaking north as host to a partly alien hybrid culture that developed under foreign, Islamic occupation, and regard the south as being the true India—or the “pure” India, as it often is put. Such are the difficulties in balancing two languages—and India has thirty of them with official status, from such relatively familiar tongues as Bengali and Punjabi and Tamil to Bodo (a Tibeto-Burman language) and Santhali (an Austro-Asiatic language).
Nor is there a national religion. There is something called “Hinduism,” which more closely resembles a succession of religions than a religion. There is as much difference between different strands of “Hinduism” as there is between, say, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Judaism, or between Unitarianism and Islam. There are polytheistic Hinduisms and monotheistic Hinduisms and a great many that finesse the difference. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, shows up in the Hindu pantheon (or some versions of it) as an avatar of Vishnu. Jesus pops in, too, from time to time. Beyond the variety within Hinduism, there is a robust Islamic presence in India, along with Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and others.
Relations among them is appalling, and very often marked by violence. Hindus and Muslims murder each other with terrible frequency. (A young man was hanged in a slum outside of my apartment building in New Delhi for having crossed the Hindu-Muslim sexual barrier.) Catholics, particularly Catholic women, are an object of playful scorn among Hindus, especially among the upper-caste Hindus. The Sikhs spent years waging a violent campaign for an independent, religiously pure homeland (Khalistan) of their own, and they were not pacified until after they made the tactical error of assassinating the dictator Indira Gandhi, which unleashed a nightmare of retaliatory pogroms in which thousands of Sikhs were massacred, often by being burnt alive. Religion is not the mortar that holds India together—it is an incendiary propellant pushing it apart.
Nor is there a unifying national secular culture. Indeed, the most enduring elements of Indian culture act against the emergence of a single national identity. Caste is a subject that has long fascinated Westerners, and it often is misunderstood. It has hierarchical features, but its workings in Indian society are more complex than that, having to do with separate communities with separate traditions and separate sets of values, not merely to do with socio-religious gradations. It also has the characteristic of a guild system, tying heredity to particular occupations, and the official suppression of caste-consciousness has, as one might suspect, done very little to ameliorate that. (On the other hand, India’s integration into the global marketplace has.) Beyond caste, India has an enormous and steep class divide, regional divisions, and social divisions of other sorts. Its politics is energetically democratic, but its society is markedly not, and interactions among Indians of dissimilar standing and origin are fraught and very often tense.
India’s founding ideology was swaraj, or self-rule, which was a unifying nationalistic force when the concept was applied to the nation. But swaraj has infiltrated down through Indian society, and there is a very strong undercurrent of Indian political thought holding that the country’s many separate communities are entitled to a great deal of autonomy, if not outright independence. Sikh separatism was rooted in such thought. Kashmiri separatism is rooted in such thought. Muslims’ petition for a separate civil code is rooted in such thought. Thomas Jefferson hoped that the American republic could be divided into a series of what amounted to smaller and smaller republics, a kind of radical federalism that was wisely buried with the worst of Jefferson’s sometimes eccentric political thinking. But that idea has taken root in the Republic of India.
How, then, has India emerged as a nation? The answer is not to be found in its political institutions: Five decades of socialism instigated by Jawaharlal Nehru and maintained by successive Congress Party governments, most of them corrupt and ineffectual, left India unnecessarily impoverished and undermined the irreplaceable civic institutions inherited from the British. India has had a very few heroic business leaders, but most of the prominent corporate moguls have been barely a cut above its political leaders. India’s founding father was a prescient New Age crank with a gift for political theater, a fact appreciated more often inside India than outside of it, but he was a giant compared with his epigones.
This is simply not the stuff out of which one makes a country—and yet there is a there there. And, specifically, there is a there there that one does not find in the United States or, so near as I can tell, in the rest of the Anglosphere, or in Europe. It is to discover and understand this aspect of Indian civilization, which is held together through no obviously apparent means but holds together nonetheless—that I recommend the study of India to our scholars, our historians, our theologians, our political theorists, and our economists. Put another way, I recommend that Americans study India not because I find some particular beauty or truth in the civilization of the Indus valley—though I do—but out of national self-interest.
“India is a geographical expression,” goes an observation popularly attributed to Winston Churchill (as such observations tend to be). “It is no more a united country than is the equator.” (The actual source of that observation probably is John Seely.) “America,” too, was a geographical term before it was a political one, but a very distinct nation had developed by 1776, a broadly homogeneous population of white European Christian farmers and merchants under the leadership of a deeply homogeneous ruling class of classically educated Anglo-Protestant aristocrats, lawyers, intellectuals, and military men. The mathematics of early America was addition: of Florida, the Louisiana territory, Texas, Alaska. The mathematics of India’s founding was division: The bloody partition of Pakistan (five hundred thousand died in attendant atrocities) and the subsequent subdivision of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s informal partition of its lawless frontier territories. India’s internal subdivision proceeds apace, with legal and constitutional recognition of particular languages, castes, tribes, and communities, each associated with particular rights and privileges written into the law.
What we have to learn from India, then, is how to be a partly integrated society. India began as an almost entirely disintegrated society and began out of necessity to integrate itself into a whole. The United States began as a remarkably integrated society and has been slowly disintegrating. At some point our two nations very likely will meet in the middle—not Sweden, not Somalia. Already, our affirmative action programs and antidiscrimination jurisprudence are strongly redolent of India’s “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes” protocols. For forty years, India’s Sikhs attempted to pry away a separate homeland and did so with the encouragement of foreign powers; in the United States, ethnic separatists such as the Latino-chauvinist Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán dream the same toxic dream (a “bronze continent” for the “bronze people,” as they put it—“Por La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada!”).
The remarkable thing is that even without any obvious basis for an overarching sense of national identity, India manages to exercise national will. For example, it is very difficult to imagine that the United States, under present circumstances, could negotiate a free-trade deal with the European Union—or with India, for that matter. Three free-trade pacts that were clearly and incontestably in our national interest—with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea—were derailed for years by the pettiest of parochial political interests, and may yet be derailed again. In 2012, India will begin negotiating a free-trade pact with the European Union, a development of potentially momentous import. The negotiations will not begin in Brussels—they will begin in New Delhi. Likewise, we see in India a renewed resolve in its relations with the madly nationalistic regime in Beijing (though that resolve is of a very quiet kind) and an admirable sense of realism in its reaction to Islamic terrorism, of which India is the world’s leading victim, having lost more of its citizens to terrorism than to its wars. That realism consists of taking prudent internal security and intelligence measures rather than fighting fruitless wars abroad.
Opening trade, containing Chinese ambition, and constraining Islamic jihad are the three major international projects of our time, and India is taking the lead on them as an exhausted America relinquishes it. That is why I call Manmohan Singh the leader of the free world. I see little evidence that the United States wishes to reclaim its uncontested role as the essential actor on the world stage; if it did, I suspect that the lessons of India’s chaotic awakening would be instructive. We might, for instance, have enacted simple visa and immigration reforms that would have more practical effect in securing the nation from further terror attacks than the Iraq War has. We might have begun the process of liberalizing our sclerotic internal regulatory environment and further opening our international trade relations, both of which would give us a stronger hand in our mutual death grip relationship with China. We might have begun to rationalize our public finances. And still we might. But if such a thing should not come to pass—if Americans should continue to lose confidence in their culture, in their institutions, in their faith, and in their civilization—then the lessons of India will be invaluable when it comes to the project of managing our decline. And unless we make radical changes to our public policies very quickly, there is one more lesson that we will need to learn from India: How to be poor.
Biswas, Soutik, “India’s Architect of Reforms,” BBC News, October 14, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3725357.stm
Fried, Erin, “India’s Response to a Rising China: Economic and Strategic Challenges and Opportunities: An Interview with Harsh V. Pant,” National Bureau of Asian Research, http://www.nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=169
Friedman, Milton, “Indian Economic Planning,” 1963, http://www.docser.com/Indian-Economic-Planning-(1963)-by-Milton-Friedman-942474
Gupta, Shekhar, “Walk the Talk” column, The Indian Express, http://www.indianexpress.com/
Panagariya, Arvind, India, the Emerging Giant (Oxford University Press, 2008)
———“India in the 1980s and 1990s: A Triumph of Reform,” Working Paper 04/43, International Monetary Fund, 2004, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/cat/longres.aspx?sk=17129.0
Sainath, P., Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts (Penguin, 1996)
Singh, Khushwant, Sex, Scotch, and Scholarship: Selected Writings (UBS Publishers Distributors, 1992)
———Train to Pakistan (Chatto & Windus, 1956)
———Delhi: A Novel (Penguin Books India Ltd, 1990)