Can India be independent without self-esteem?

Every Independence Day, no one can escape a surfeit of patriotism – from tricolour-waving to Lata Mangeshkar’s inevitable Ai mere watan ke logon”. On my morning walk today, India’s 66th I-Day, one loudspeaker was blaring Apni azaadi ko hum hargiz mita saktey nahin…”. We will never give up our independence.

I felt like asking: did we ever have independence, the kind that is really worth celebrating?

While people in all countries like waving national flags, only in India do we seem to need an overdose of musical energisers to remind us about who we are as a nation. I don’t know of any other nation in the world where there are so many hundreds of patriotic songs promising valour and sacrifice – unless these songs are meant as a substitute for the real thing: belief in oneself, a sense of self-esteem.

If true independence is the ability to act autonomously and responsibly, without being influenced by narrow loyalties, self-defeating mental attitudes and personal insecurities, we need to declare our independence every day, every waking minute, and not just on 15th August.

True independence starts in the mind – and it can’t start without basic self-esteem. India, and Indians, lack an independent mindset primarily due this collective and individual lack of self-esteem.

We don't think we have succeeded till someone from outside tells us we are part of Brics. A Ravi Shankar is a nobody in India till George Harrison discovers him. Our rich businessmen will wear a Rolex rather than a Titan because their sense of status comes from what they can show off rather than what they are, or what they have achieved. Indian shirts have to be named Peter England or John Players to be considered good enough for even ordinary folks to weak. We even give our dogs foreign sounding names - Rover, Scott, or whatever - so that they sound real to us. All this is further evidence of a lack of self-confidence.

Self-esteem, according to Nathaniel Branden, author of many seminal works in this area, “is confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life, and confidence in our right to be successful and happy.”

Does any Indian leader ever personify this value? Almost all of them are breast-beating cassandras who think leadership is about reminding ourselves every day about how badly off we are.

Consider where our collective lack of self-esteem has led us. The man who made our I-Day speech today from the Red Fort is the one who is least qualified to demonstrate the importance of independence.

Manmohan Singh is the country’s Prime Minister, but he has never acted like one. For too long, he has sacrificed independence for the job security that comes from loyalty to the Gandhi family. He seems to be singularly lacking in self-esteem. Loyalty to the country will set him free. Free to either serve the country with his head held high, or free to speak his mind once out of the government. But he prefers to stay in shackles.

For the Gandhi family, Sonia and Rahul, I wish them the freedom to be their own selves. They have become slaves to sycophants who have given them the impression that they are great leaders and that India needs them in party politics. This was not what Sonia wanted from life when her late husband Rajiv was still an airline pilot. How come she has allowed self-seeking hangers-on to convince her otherwise? We are often slaves to our followers. Rahul has shown no taste for being a man of the masses. How has he convinced himself that he is the messiah the country is waiting for? True independence and freedom means Sonia and Rahul should be looking into their consciences for the answer.

Or take the main opposition party, the BJP. How come, after more than 30 years of existence, it has not asserted its independence as a political party by asking the RSS to stay out? The RSS claims to be a social organisation, but it is afraid to stay one. It is seeking political clout by seeking to control the BJP - to the extent where it even nominates the party’s president. If the RSS were a self-confident organisation, it would have no need for either minority bashing or the BJP’s political crutch.

The BJP lacks both self-esteem and independence to think for itself. One electoral drubbing in 2004 has convinced it that talking about India Shining is a vote-loser. It has abandoned all its better instincts and is now trying to out-Congress  in singing the nation’s dirge. It is unconvinced about the economic reforms it implemented under Vajpayee and now wants to avoid talking about any kind of change for the better.

Nothing typifies this lack of self-confidence in religions more than each one’s insistence that if you believe in my religion, you should not believe in another. Reuters

The BJP has to rediscover its independence to really work for the nation as a truly secular party. It has to chalk out its agenda for the next 100 years, and not think of tailoring its vision for the next election. It can’t do so without a solid sense of self-esteem.

But the lack of self-esteem goes beyond politics. Look at religion. Hinduism and Islam came into eye-to-eye contact several hundred years ago, but lack on self-confidence on both sides ended in mutual mistrust where both Muslims and Hindus look at the other warily.

The late Mexican Nobel laureate, a former ambassador to India, observed that Hinduism and Islam stared at each another in incomprehension. When Hindus came in contact with Islam, they were afraid of what this radical new religion – with justice and brotherhood as ideals – would do to their way of life and caste system. When Muslims looked at Hinduism, they were equally threatened by its openness and plurality, something that could demolish Islam’s claims of exclusiveness.

Both religions lost out by failing to engage with the other. Hindus withdrew into their shells, the caste system worsened and became a trap; Muslims went on to rule India and injected themselves with a false sense of superiority.  Today, both Hindus and Muslims suffer from an inferiority complex – which boils over into violence. Insecurity breeds violence.

In fact, lack of self-esteem seems to be an affliction with all major religions globally. Religion typically appeals to people low on confidence, or low on self-esteem. But religious leaders themselves suffer from the same inferiority complex. The need to proselytise is indicative of a need for numbers – as if more adherents means your truth is truer than your neighbour’s.

Nothing typifies this lack of self-confidence in religions more than each one’s insistence that if you believe in my religion, you should not believe in another. But can Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus, and Mohammed not all have had something special to say? Why should I believe that only one of them had a monopoly on truth? Clearly, the major votaries of religion are themselves lacking in self-confidence.

But let’s go beyond religion, to the most basic binary division among human beings – gender. Thanks to centuries of patriarchy, Indian men and women are today staring at each other in mutual incomprehension, unable to engage in a dialogue that can only benefit them both.

Consider what is really happening in society. We read about rapes and molestation of women almost every day. These episodes speak volumes about Indian men’s inability to handle the reality of a power shift. Lack of self-esteem renders men unable to handle simple rejections by women – leading to acid attacks and rapes. Lack of self-confidence makes men incapable of handling female self-assertion.

Some men go the other way, and call themselves feminists, just to prove they are not the old patriarchal types, and to curry favour with women. No woman is fooled by men calling themselves feminists. This is short-sighted, and again indicative of low male self-esteem. Men cannot be feminists. Or masculinists, for that matter. They can only be humanists – people who respect everyone’s independence as their own.

Lack of self-confidence also makes long-subjugated women take a more dangerous road to self-assertion – aggressive debunking of men. From the spurned wife who dotes on her son to get back the love she doesn’t get from her husband to the compulsive woman smoker or drinker who thinks this is the way to freedom (almost mirroring the male route to macho), feminism is still in its infantile phase in India. Women have to graduate from feminism – a kind of female flag-waving routine – to the values of humanism, which are gender neutral. True independence always has to encompass both victim and victimiser.

Another area where women are being led up the garden path is beauty – and they are now dragging the modern male in the same direction. In every species but the human one, males are the ones that look better: the peacock is better looking than the peahen, the lion compared to the lioness, and the male gorilla compared to the female one.

But patriarchy among humans has created the opposite phenomenon: better looking females. The evolutionary reason for this is clear. In a male-order society, good-looking women derive an advantage over not-so-good-looking women. But even as we slowly start bidding goodbye to patriarchy, the beauty myth has taken on a life of its own – forcing women to spend fortunes in beauty products that don’t do much to enhance real beauty. Moderate investments if looking better are fine, but spending fortunes in looking good is more an obsession - unless your job requires you to be applying facial gook all the time (modelling, acting). For the rest, this can only mean inadequate self-esteem.

In India, lack of self-esteem is one reason driving women to fairness creams and other such gook, which is really a revolt against your natural skin colour, your natural femininity, and marketers have made fortunes from this lack of self-confidence.

Women are emerging from patriarchy only to mortgage their souls to a mythical ideal of beauty. If I were a women, I would invest in self-defence and economic self-reliance.

I can go on and on. A country, a people, a community, a region, a man, a woman – no one can achieve true independence without developing better self-esteem.

Let me conclude with another quote from Nathaniel Branden: “We cannot “give” a child self-esteem, but we can raise them in a manner that will encourage (rather than undermine) their journey toward healthy self-esteem.”

If we raise our children and ourselves with good self-esteem, we will build a nation that is independent.

Till then, I-Day has no real meaning.

Updated Date: Aug 15, 2012 14:36 PM