One of the most seductive myths that the Indian middle class and its elite believes in is that the 21st century is the Indian Century. Generously the myth adds that we shall share honours with China. Wishfully it contends that we will have a seat in the United Nations Security Council. Our diaspora certifies this myth because it adds to its brittle dignity in the countries it lives in. Between IT, our youthful population, our comparative advantage in knowledge, we seem set to win the gold medals of globalisation. A panopoly of exemplars from Sam Pitroda to Nandan Nilekani is paraded as testimony to this myth of Indian progress. I want to play spoil sport to this thesis, not because India is going nowhere but because this is not the place to go or the way to do it. My arguments are as follows.
India is a pluralistic assemblage of civilisations and communities. When the West followed the myth of progress, it read the relation between tribe, peasant, industry as a sequence where the tribe evolved into industrialism. This created a legitimation for decimation of what was dubbed the primitive and the tribal. In India, the tribal is not our ancestor but our contemporary. We do not confine him to the museum or the reservation and we should not seek to deculture him. Ours has to be a multiple world with plural futures. To homogenise it is to accept the fact of genocide.
In a civilisation sense India has been a sustainable society. There is, however, one danger. If most of India were to turn middle class with equivalent standards of consumption, we would cannibalise the world and its resources. India as a whole cannot live at the calorific level of the American middle class. That would be the programme of unsustainable society and a short-run view of global responsibility.
India has to construct itself differently, inventing not just a new notion of ecological economies but a new imagination for democracy. The old model of a democracy as a pastiche of rights, electoralism and the vision of a nation state is old hat. Without a sustainable ecology, we cannot be a sustainable democracy. The test of sustainability is not just the survival of the forest, it is the well-being and liveability of our cities. We have to reconstruct the sustainable city as an imagination, think of new theories of space, creative ways of managing waste and rework the nation state which is currently a form of conspicuous consumption. Instead of fighting over carbon credits, let us take the battle the other way and invent new ecological possibilities. The idea of living on less need not be a Protestant theology or a repressive ideology. It can be a celebration of life, a civilisation’s way of reducing violence. It does not require a return to primitivism but a creativity that looks at the complexity of the world and creates a playful scenario of responsibility. We grow more, but not as an economy but as an ecology. We intensify diversity not just of nature but of the varieties of culture, where each culture is an exemplar of problem solving. We sustain ecologies and languages and become a high information society by ways of life, the livelihoods, the forms of knowledge we sustain. Around knowledge, we create an ethics of memory where different theories, memories can talk to each other. We need to remember that the other word for progress is obsolescence, the systematic eradication of our societies. We have to decentralise the “Indian Imagination” and stop seeing differences as pathological. I think it is time we drop the standardised prose of globalisation and tell the world that we are different and that our future is different.
We do not need to be envious of China and its bully boy militarism. The economics of force and the herd is not what we seek. The Chinese cost benefit on violence, uniformity, speed is not what we seek or what we are afraid of. We don’t seek to race or be part of the “B teams” of globalisation. If we are a civilisation, let us think like a civilisation. We have behaved like a second-hand society content to be Charles Lamb of the genius of other cultures. Let us understand the genius of other cultures by living out our dialects, our dreams, our forms of religion, our ideas of myth, ethics, our sense of values worked out as craft, colour or cooking. Why race when we can dance, why talk of the illiteracy of the globe when we have a sense of the cosmos? I want to argue that this is not a retreat from the world, but a return to our own genius. I cannot understand an India which is indifferent to its 50,000 varieties of rice but celebrates some child winning the Spelling Bee in the US.
A globalised India which sees itself as a second US is a secondhand, second-rate society. We become mimic men not of the old colonialism but of new imperialism which demands that we internalise the American way of life. It is time we move playfully away and discard the fetish for development, or the dreariness of millennial goals which has no sense of justice or poetry.
If India secedes from the global standard, I am sure other countries will follow. We dream differently and we do not need the current nightmare of IPRs (intellectual property rights). We do not need to subscribe to the battle of civilisations when any child can show that Huntington is an illiterate and that India is a great Islamic society. We do not have to close ourselves to do it but challenge the world to a debate. We need a wild ethics to challenge the dullness of the global dream. Let China westernise. I think we have the confidence to go our own way, offering hospitality to more sustainable and democratic dreams. China envy like America envy is a futile disease and like most Indian pathologies — self-inflicted. Our democracy is too precious. Our civilisation is much more interesting than the current visions of our time. The present is ethically unsustainable. It is this that we have to confront.
* Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist