On 26th January 2006, the New York Times ran a story headlined ‘India Everywhere in the Alps’. The story began: ‘Delhi swept into Davos on Wednesday, with an extravagant public relations campaign by India intended to promote the country as the world’s next economic superstar, and as a democratic alternative to China for the affections of foreign investors.
There were few places one could go, on this first day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting here, without seeing, hearing, drinking, or tasting something Indian. The organizers call the campaign “India Everywhere” and they appear to mean it literally.’
The following week, in Bangalore, I met an entrepreneur-friend just back from this meeting on a Swiss hillside of the great and the good, the wealthy and the well-connected. His face shining with excitement, he told me: ‘We have finally de-hyphenated India from Pakistan, and bracketed it with China instead. Because of us, Indo-Pak has now become Chindia!’
I appreciated my friend’s enthusiasm, but sought to set it in context. While entrepreneurs like him deserved credit, I said, the Indian political class deserved even more. Our country was now being taken seriously abroad because of its economic rise, but also because of its democratic credentials. Indeed, the publicity-blitz in Davos presented India as the ‘World’s Fastest Growing Free-Market Democracy’. Unlike China, we claimed, India promoted cultural pluralism and democratic dissent. This brought us closer in spirit to the countries of Europe and North America, whose investments we now hoped to attract and whose friendship we now sought to cultivate.
The contributions of Indian industry to the country’s rise were undeniable, I told my friend, but they were enabled by our political leaders. Successive Prime Ministers—from Narasimha Rao through A. B. Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh— had broken with the license-quota-permit Raj of the Nehruvian era, allowing freer rein to market forces, which led to impressive rates of economic growth. After the end of the Cold War had made non-alignment redundant, Rao, Vajpayee and Singh all promoted strong ties with the West, and particularly with its most powerful country, the United States, also the main market for our vibrant IT industry. Notably, these Prime Ministers had done this while reiterating—rather than abandoning—India’s credentials as a democratic and multi-cultural society. Indeed, among the showpiece events at that Davos conference was a talk by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen on his new book, significantly entitled, ‘The Argumentative Indian’.
I now recall this conversation of 2006 with a certain sadness. For thirteen years on, India has emphatically been de-hypenated from China, and just as emphatically been re-hyphenated with Pakistan. One reason is the slowdown in the economy; another the shrinking of democratic space in an increasingly authoritarian regime. We are no longer so fast growing, and we are no longer so freedom-loving either.
Future historians may come to recognise the 5th of August 2019 as the day on which our political leaders decisively turned their back on the ideals of the Republic‘s Founders. The abolition of India’s only Muslim-majority state, and the massive show of force that accompanied it, were acts that were at once dramatic and draconian. However, the undermining of our pluralist traditions has been underway for some time now. Since May 2014, the many incidents of lynchings of innocent Muslims, the increasing salience of godmen and gurus in our public life, the characterization by senior Ministers of immigrants as ‘termites’, etc, all pointed to a fundamental shift underway in our country’s political system.
The Constitution of India sought to define citizenship on the basis of shared values: individual freedom, gender and caste equality, cultural pluralism, states’ rights. Now, however, we are being asked to see ourselves as, above all, a ‘Hindu’ country— as a nation defined by the interests, aspirations, prejudices and paranoias of its majority religion. Naturally, this leads non-Indians to see us in these terms as well; as being, as it were, a Hindu counterpart to Muslim Pakistan. This process was well underway before 5th August 2019—but what happened on that day deepened and consolidated it.
When, back in the early years of this century, we sought to separate ourselves from Pakistan, the Government of the day found an indispensable ally in the Indian entrepreneurial class. It was companies like WIPRO, TCS and Infosys that presented an image of the innovative, outward-looking and productive Indian to the world. It was not just that these companies created jobs, wealth, and investment opportunities; it was that those who represented these companies abroad spoke the language of civility and reason, befriending and inspiring trust among entrepreneurs, politicians, and journalists of other countries.
Now, however, as we find ourselves re-hyphenated with Pakistan, the Government of the day has found a crucial ally in the Indian television industry. Channels like Times Now, Republic, AajTak and Zee News present an image of the narrow-minded and insecure Indian to the world. It is not just that these channels ignore real issues like joblessness, agrarian distress and institutional decay while seeking to demonize Pakistan and our own Opposition Parties; it is that they do so in vituperative language, provoking dismay and despair among their own compatriots.
Since May 2014, there has been a rapid fall in India’s standing in the world—from being seen with China as an emerging global power, to being coupled with Pakistan as an insular, inward-looking nation plagued by authoritarianism and religious bigotry. Anyone with any understanding of global affairs could sense that this fall was underway well before 5th August 2019. And yet our Government went ahead and did what it did on that day.
The passing last week of the nakedly communal Citizens Amendment Bill will further encourage the world to see us as a nation driven by religious bigotry and sectarian prejudice. The re-hyphenation of India with Pakistan will now proceed even more rapidly. This may be welcomed and cheered on by anchors at Republic and Zee News. But it should worry the rest of us.
FROM INDO-PAK TO CHINDIA AND BACK AGAIN TO INDO-PAK
(first published in Hindustan Times, 15th December 2019)