The Idea of India

For some reason, I was not able to read the newspapers this Monday. So I read them today. And that day’s Economic Times bugged me. It is some kind of “celebrate India” issue – the Indian century. I am not against celebrations per se, but against mindless ones – I don’t know what is there to celebrate after a year that has seen disaster after disaster.

On the front page, there is this piece with a photograph, photoshopped of course, of five domes – that of the Taj Palace Hotel, the US Capitol, the Kremlin (its actually St. Basil’s Cathedral, Wikipedia says), St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and one more which I don’t recognize. Its a “global gesture of solidarity”, ET says. In its hurry to line up domes, the paper forgot what each building represents – the Taj was built by Jamshedji Tata, an industrialist and philanthropist, out of his own money; the US Capitol represents (represented, I should say) the idea of a republic which believes in the rule of law, not of men; the Kremlin is the place from where tyrant after Russian tyrant has issued orders condemning millions of people to eternal slavery and a painful death; the Vatican is the power center of the Roman Catholic Church’s supreme pontiff – the Pope, and I won’t repeat my views on religion, particularly monotheistic ones. A geopolitical alignment of domes makes such ideas irrelevant. The irony – the photograph carries a label – “a new idea of india”.

On the same page, is an op-ed which I think is the worst I have read in the new year because while on the surface it preaches about ideas, it has an undercurrent of something that I can’t put my finger on; I think its some kind of pragmatism but whatever it is, it scares me. Its by Sunil Khilnani (I have borrowed my post title from ET which has borrowed it from Khilnani’s book). He writes-

Economics was the new realism — solvent of all problems holding India back. Fundamental dilemmas — of social justice, of differences of belief, of security and freedom — conflicts requiring difficult choices and abilities to persuade, could be governed by the rational calculus of economics.

Our political leaders too believed that economic growth could absolve them of the mess of politics[.]


As markets veered and dipped this past year, we felt, in dramatic and painful fashion, the profoundly non-rational potentialities of human economic behaviour and of markets. And then, in the brutal attacks on our financial capital, we saw how political beliefs, rooted in a lethal exclusivism and hatred, can shoot up complacent routines and throw into question our sense of security. The state remains the most achieved invention to tender some security in the face of the non-rational. Because our individual and collective fates are so tied up with it, it requires our close attention. Recognising that is the beginning of political realism.


[T]he generation symbolised by Nehru did not imagine they could repair and build India by invoking an ideology, or God, or the natural order of things, or even scientific prescriptions for the good or efficient society. Nor did they believe in economic development as a self-resolving process.

That commitment to politics was embodied in India’s democratic order: not because it was assumed that democracy could provide clear answers to already pre-given questions; but precisely because democracy was a perpetually interrogative form — always suspicious of the settled answer. But for a democratic society to make a success of this kind of politics, it requires a perpetual pursuit of social self-knowledge. The only resource that democracies have out of which to judge how best to create their future is their understanding of their history, and their current predicament — they cannot appeal to some extrahistorical ideology or truth (capitalism, socialism, God, providential destiny) to see them forward.

Understanding history is important no doubt. But what if you come across “extrahistorical” ideologies or truths – capitalism, socialism, God, providential destiny – during such understanding? Did yesterday’s events (which are today’s history) happen just like that? Why did Nehru try to smother India at birth itself? Was it not because of his affair with socialism? Khilnani conveniently lumps all ideas together – it seems that belief in destiny and belief in capitalism are one and the same to him.

Then there is this adjective “non-rational”, which he uses when he talks about human economic behaviour and markets. And while he doesn’t use it when he refers to the terrorist attack, he means it. That’s where – “the state remains the most achieved invention to tender some security in the face of the non-rational” – comes from. The market and terrorists are one and the same – that’s what he means at some level.

So while he says we should pay attention to politics so that free trade and individual freedom can be preserved, his “ideas” seem to suggest something else. I might be wrong, but that’s the impression the op-ed leaves on me.

There are some good articles in the paper, like the one on E Sreedharan, but at the risk of shooting the messenger, I will say that this one on how Indian industry is demanding protection from “dumping” is another one that can ruin your morning-

KUMAR MANGALAM BIRLA, CHAIRMAN OF THE $28 billion Aditya Birla group, was asked recently to spell out the single most important thing he wanted the government to do. “Levy tariffs and protect the domestic industry,” said Mr Birla without batting an eyelid. Surprising it may sound as it comes from the head of a group which depends on overseas businesses for more than 50% of its revenues, but he was just reflecting the general mood of India’s business community.

With the largest economies of the world coming under the grip of a recession, the clamour for protectionist measures is bound to become louder. In fact, a number of corporate leaders have already sought higher import duties to protect local players from cheap imports from countries such as Russia, Ukraine and China. With their major markets – the US, Europe and Japan – shrinking due to recession, exporters from these countries are left with no option but to liquidate their inventories at any cost.

“The threat is real,” says YM Deosthalee, finance director at Larsen & Toubro, India’s largest engineering company. “If the government wants India to grow, then protectionist measures are vital,” he said.


Indian companies are seeking protection, fully aware of its likely impact on global trade. “In any case, there has been a sharp fall in global trade ever since the liquidity crisis started,” said Mr Deosthalee. “There should be a twopronged strategy to tackle this – raise customs duties and levy lower duties in the local market,” he added.

There is already talk about reviving the fabled Bombay Club, which was formed in 1940s to press for protecting the nascent Indian industry.

The fabled Bombay Club? I think notorious is a better adjective. This is what selfishness, as the word is commonly used, refers to – devise innumerable ways to fuck others so that your business does not suffer. And these are the favor-swapping “businessmen” that make up Indian industry – people who will help make this century an Indian one.

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  • Unpretentious_Diva  On January 9, 2009 at 2:45 am

    the Taj was built by Jamshedji Tata

    I guess you are wrong. (just a guess, may be i am wrong!)

    Taj was built by British, and it was even used as a British lord office for periods.

    Jamshedji Tata bought it.

    But the thing is, Indian constitution doesn’t support property rights.

  • Unpretentious_Diva  On January 9, 2009 at 2:49 am

    Ohh by the way i saw you are a Libertarian and that too an Ayn Rand fan.

    you may get some good read here.



  • Aristotle The Geek  On January 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    JT constructed the Taj, not the British. But that’s not the point. What is important is that while ET talks about ideas, it isn’t bothered about the symbolism of the buildings it lined up to showcase “The Idea of India.”

    The Indian constitution? Have written more than enough on the subject.

    I do consider myself a libertarian – a classical liberal if you will, but Rand – I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a fan; I have written both good and some not-so-good stuff about her, but nothing outrageous. Her ideas do heavily influence me though.

  • Pramod Biligiri  On January 9, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    “the state remains the most achieved invention to tender some security in the face of the non-rational” – Oh boy.

    The biz press is a good read to know exactly what new nonsense hoi polloi is being fed. Don’t look for real insights there ;)

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