India is not America: A response to the New York Times

"How India became America," is the title of Akash Kapur's op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times. The headline is more provocative than its primary lament – What price development? — which treads familiar ground. Woe the toxic dumps, destroyed beaches, abandoned fields, and what Kapur broadly labels "the brutality of modernity".

I assume that the column previews the arguments laid out in greater and – one hopes – more persuasive detail in his soon-to-be released book, India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, which has already garnered rave reviews in The Financial Times, Economist, etc. My primary quibble for now is with Kapur's unthinking deployment of 'America' as catch-all descriptor of modern capitalist values — of the 'good' kind.

There's "America’s capitalist exuberance" which offers, at the outset, "a sharp contrast to India’s austere socialism" when Kapur was growing up in Auroville with an American mother and Indian father – or as he somewhat misleadingly puts it, when "I grew up in rural India." This polarity, of course, dissolves in the heady rush of liberalisation, a process Kapur sweepingly characterises as the "Americanization of India":

The truth is that India is not and will never be America. Many of our flaws and strengths may be shared – we do have more in common that either likes to admit – but still unique in their cultural iteration. Reuters

Something had changed in the very spirit of the country. The India in which I grew up was, in many respects, an isolated and dour place of limited opportunity. The country was straitjacketed by its moralistic rejection of capitalism, by a lethargic and often depressive fatalism.

Now it is infused with an energy, a can-do ambition and an entrepreneurial spirit that I can only describe as distinctly American. In surveys of global opinion, Indians consistently rank as among the most optimistic people in the world. Bookstores are stacked with titles like “India Arriving,” “India Booms” and “The Indian Renaissance.” The Pew Global Attitudes Project, which measures opinions across major countries, regularly finds that Indians admire values and attributes typically thought of as American: free-market capitalism, globalization, even multinational companies.

This then is Kapur's version of the last 20-odd-years of our history: Indians admire Americans. And at some point in the 1990s they decided to become American – setting aside their dour socialism and age-old fatalism, etc. Although Kapur hides behind RK Narayan – who wrote something about Indian austerity and American materialism – to buttress his claim, in reality he is relying on that most American sense of exceptionalism.

As Stephen Walt notes in Foreign Policy, Americans across centuries have variously declared themselves "the shining city on the hill," "last best hope of the earth" on the presumption that "America's values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration."

Kapur's thesis regurgitates this "unique" and yet "universal" formulation in its post-colonial, 21st century global capitalist form. To be exuberant, optimistic, ambitious, entrepreneurial is to be American. America here stands for all things good. Socialism, Indian tradition not so much. Liberalisation was therefore our pre-Obama version of "Yes we can!" – be America, that is.

And yet, 20 years later, it has all gone awry:

The villages around my home have undeniably grown more prosperous, but they are also more troubled. Abandoned fields and fallow plantations are indications of a looming agricultural and environmental crisis. Ancient social structures are collapsing under the weight of new money. Bonds of caste and religion and family have frayed; the panchayats, village assemblies made up of elders, have lost their traditional authority. Often, lawlessness and violence step into the vacuum left behind.

India became America, and all she got is a bit more money and whole lot of woe. But why? If being American is such a good thing, how could it lead to something so bad?

Kapur doesn't offer any answers – in his op-ed, at least. There's some vague language about the "American promise of renewal and reinvention" that "is deeply seductive but "also profoundly menacing." The problem more likely is that all this American exceptionalism blather paints Kapur into a rather uncomfortable corner.

He either has to acknowledge that the American brand of me-me capitalism may not be quite as good, after all. Its downside more starkly visible in a country with far fewer resources and way too many people. An idea that is not entirely foreign to his readers, I would presume. But that would require him to then fallback on that old double standard: Indians ought not aspire for electricity, washing machines, cell phones or malls, and return instead to that dour and austere past they left behind.

Kapur does have another 'out.' He can set aside all that rah-rah exceptionalism and find refuge in a homegrown native author like Pavan Varma. “The year 1991 removed the stigma associated with the pursuit of wealth,” Varma writes in Being Indian. “Most importantly, it made policies congruent with the temperament of the people.” The crass materialism of New India is less a tragic loss of national virtue than “an exultant escape from [the Gandhian] emphasis on austerity, and a smug—more confident—return to tradition.”

Liberalisation didn't make us American, but more cheerfully, unashamedly Indian than ever. 1991 marked a moment when that status-obsessed soul of our nation, long suppressed, found utterance. Where we once jostled for the slightest edge in a system that offered little room to maneuver – new Premier Padmini, colour television, good school, IAS jobs – consumerist capitalism offers endless possibilities. We were never dour or austere by choice. Sure my Tam-Bram relatives hated to spend their penurious government salaries on eating out, but would invest endless energy getting their kids into IIT to ensure lifelong bragging rights. It was all a matter of matching priorities to resources.

We were never good socialists, but forever a can-do nation of jugaad-sters. It's just that 21st century capitalism gives us more to do – and more to spend on, like malls, brands, holidays, all of which can be deployed to signal our rising fortunes.

The truth is that India is not and will never be America. Many of our flaws and strengths may be shared – we do have more in common that either likes to admit – but are still unique in their cultural iteration. Has rapid development unleashed by liberalism created a giant mess? Yes. But we created the mess by being very Indian. And no doubt, we will find a way to un-do it by doing just the same.

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2012 19:06 PM

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