India 2020: How To Win Friends

Try telling any Indian that nationalism is a dated ideology and they would think you are completely insane: True, nationalism is alive and well in India. Indeed, South Asian region is possibly the most nationally conscious in the whole world now. Follow its newspapers, television, various proclamations of political leaders or the usual dinner table chatter, and one gets to see a nationalism of extremely sensitive variety, often brandished and easily offended.

One can count this as a huge achievement. Churchill's observation that India was no more a country than the equator was true at the time of its pronouncement, a mere hundred years ago. The British empire walked into India virtually unnoticed because there was, to be honest, no India in any sense: They traded with various Nabob's territory and bought the empire over a few years. One can argue that India was discovered, somewhat, by the dismemberment of its territory, which every Indian now resents to, and with the creation of Pakistan. In a sense, not only Pakistan was born out of a negativity to the concept of India; modern India was born as a reverse image of what Pakistanis imagined.

But that seems a long way away, at least now. Effectively, an India was imagined and sculpted, its thousands of years of History remoulded with a new imagination and even its Gods rediscovered in a new form. That's usual with nationalism. What Ashok's roads, Akbar's armies and British tax codes couldn't achieve, Bollywood movies on Television and Cricket (till the recent debacles, one may argue) achieved within a few short years. This is an India both in denial and a counterclaim of its own history, forever in search of its rightful place in the world.

This India is deeply disturbing to its neighbours, as they were undergoing their own nationalist transformation. From a self-effacing Bengali nationalism in Bangladesh to almost technocratic pride in Pakistan, to the search of Sinhala identity in Sri Lanka and a new secular Nepal unhinged from its King, the whole region seems to be deeply obsessed with what may be called, with justification, an European disease. The world, for these nations, seemed to be defined by a few arbitrary lines drawn by some colonial grandee rather than the nature: It is a race to prove that the countries that exist must have always existed.

Nationalism is always about redefining the past and we have already paid the price once in Europe. It seems that the game is addictive and we can't just get out of it. There is every possibility that South Asia will become nasty. The competition between neighbours are always there, but also a general dislike for India and Indians, as a regional bully and its attitude that they are the only real 'country' and rest are just there. The problem with nationalism is that everyone thinks the same and claims to be authentic.

The problem with India is that this does not help its search for rightful place. As the Second most populous nation on earth, it wants to be on global top table, at least wherever the Chinese get an invitation. But, the trouble is, it can't even get out of its own backyard. It behaves that narcissistic lady who spend so much time in front of the mirror that she can't go to the party. When it claims that it should be consulted in world affairs, its failure to get along well with its neighbours come to haunt it.

One would wonder why, with so many intelligent leaders, India still can't get over it. One reason is that intelligence does not help solve problems arising out of self-obsession, and Indian polity is sort of self-obsessed. It is waiting for the world to recognise its greatness: Alas, no one other than those trading in Indian bonds has any time for that.

So, one should now make a start. The trouble is that this start must be made by moving to exactly the opposite direction than we were moving so far. Don't punish Pakistan by not trading with them, but just go and open the borders and let the goods flow. That would be the undoing of the ISI lot, really: The Generals can't keep inciting the hatred if there is nothing to hate. If one reads Indian customs codes, one wouldn't think India is a great power (or aspires to be) and Bangladesh is just a small country neighbouring it. It looks like the opposite, that India is terrified that Bangladeshi goods will flood the market and Bangladeshis will drive Indian workers out of work. How exactly?

India, if it has to achieve its imagined greatness, have to get out of hole that it has dug for itself. As the big country, it is up to us to start the respect culture: We respect the others, we shall get respect. And armies don't win friends: They can merely keep enemies away. So, lining up Jawans on the border is not the way to build a great country: It is merely behaving like an insecure and quarrelsome neighbour. I think before India start thinking that it should have a role to play in solving world's problems, it needs to solve its own and of its neighbours. That Indian leader, who does not see Pakistan as a threat, but an opportunity to build a productive partnership (as with the others in the region), will take the country to the next level.

As always, we wait.


Tilak said…
Your piece is extremely well written and honest, unbiased.

What people off-shore India fail to understand usually is that trading with Pakistan has its share of risks particularly when Pakistan administration is obsessed with anti-India sentiment. Strengthening my argument further is the fact that Pakistan has openly misused earlier run Samjhauta express to smuggle counterfeit Indian currency.

Hope you look into the matter in this fresh light.


Thanks for dropping by.

I fully understand your point: I was full of anxiety and rage - sitting in front of TV 36 straight hours - during November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I realize and agree that it is Pakistani administrations policy to disrupt India, and it is not always about Kashmir. I am old enough to remember Zia-ul-Haq's active support to Khalistanis.

However, I have many Pakistani friends and know that the country is, like any other, full of decent, honest and hardworking people. Pakistani administration and the military does not represent the country. My view is that they have shortchanged Pakistani people, and their counterparts have shortchanged Indian ones, by the threats of wars and terrorism over last sixty years.

My argument for trade is that this connects people. Let us make it easy to trade, and yes, easy to move between the countries, and the demons will disappear. I know the governments don't want them to disappear, nor does the Military, but someday the common sense and common people will prevail.

Anonymous said…
Your argument is well taken...."trade connects people". This is assuming that the connect between us and Pakistani folk is broken completely.
I deny that strongly, and luckily I am not alone, political leaders here in India continue to believe that the Pakistani public is innocent and not to blame.

"Pakistan is full of decent, honest and hardworking people. Pakistani administration and the military do not represent the country."

Pranab Mukherjee and Dr. Manmohan Singh had expressed similar sentiments few months back.

But someday common sense will common people. Only an extraordinary leader with a vision can ensure common sense prevails.

Besides...I am too young to sit for 36 hrs straight seeing my countrymen bleeding. My colleagues and those of same generation are not too patient to wait for your "some day". We believe in creating that day, irrespective of the blood n sweat it might take. If a wolf attacks you, you have all rights to kill it. We believe if Pak is indulging in proxy war via terrorism, so can we. :)

Demons don't disappear or vanish, stealth warriors kill them.

"I know the governments don't..."....please remember Shimla agreement? Indian govt has always been against all sorts of extremism: We lost a great soul in retaliation of Operation Blue Star. So shouldn't it be govt not govt(s)?

Thanks for your reply,
Thanks for going through childish voluminous comment,

If you go out and create a peaceful future, it will be good for all. However, that future won't be built on retribution. One can't build peace by matching terrorism with terrorism, covert action with covert action. One can build peace by believing in it first, and creating a moral compulsion on the adversary to follow a peaceful path. That's not me, but Gandhi: I believe his methods work much better than wars.

There is another, pragmatic, reason why wars don't work. The paper wars, the sort that mainstream media engages in, are imagined to be fought symmetrically: So we match fighter jets for fighter jets, tanks for tanks, infantrymen for infantrymen. Indeed, India has an advantage over Pakistanis on this. But actual wars are fought assymetrically: On enemy terrains that one may not know well, within a population which may be adverse, in full glare of the world media which may not be sympathetic. Given this, it may be harder to win. It is impossible when the win means winning the hearts and minds of decent Pakistanis, which you accept should be the goal.

So, I see no alternatives to unilateral peace offer and possible disarmament, open borders and trade, and possibly even great economic union. Dr Singh and Pranab-babu may be talking the right language, but they have wasted nearly ten years and not done much yet. I despair, therefore, and see no option but to wait for another day.


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