India Needs a New Economics

Indian economists have always been tempted to enter the fray and come up with their own answers to these questions. But their answers lack originality because they end up taking one or the other side of the already established bipolar intellectual space consisting of two isms: capitalism and socialism. Of course, this side-taking, this lack of originality, is not a problem in itself. Every problem in the world doesn’t require original thinking. However, our economists take sides without understanding the fundamental assumption on whose basis the bipolar economic intellectual space has come to be in the first place: the assumption of a particular kind of state.

Pick up any book on economics, and you’ll find the word state mentioned in it at least once. In fact, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from Freidrich August von Hayek to John Maynard Keynes, the most important question economists have been trying to answer is that of the correct level of state interference in economic activities. Should markets be completely free, or should they have state control? What should be the extent of this control?

Indian economists have always been tempted to enter the fray and come up with their own answers to these questions. But their answers lack originality because they end up taking one or the other side of the already established bipolar intellectual space consisting of two isms: capitalism and socialism. Of course, this side-taking, this lack of originality, is not a problem in itself. Every problem in the world doesn’t require original thinking. However, our economists take sides without understanding the fundamental assumption on whose basis the bipolar economic intellectual space has come to be in the first place: the assumption of a particular kind of state. Thus, without caring for whether western economists like the ones mentioned above refer to the same kind of state when seeking the correct level of its interference in markets, Indian economists turn knobs in the hope that they can come up with the correct level of state intervention for India. This is a huge problem.

I have not come across a definition from any western economist of the kind of state he or she refers to. I don’t mean to include in this definition qualities they’d like to see in the state (of which they have of course written a lot), but qualities they ignored, considered inevitable, or regarded as ideologically neutral—in short, qualities they took for granted. Since one does not list down things one takes for granted, it is understandable that western economists haven’t considered it important to clarify their definition of state for people like me. Indian economists, who have failed to set up an Indian school of economics in the real sense of the term, are in a worse position. Since their western gurus didn’t tell them, they don’t even subconsciously know what kind of state is taken for granted in their economics bibles. While western economists didn’t find it worth highlighting, Indian economists don’t even know about it, and therefore, cannot highlight it.

The best way to get out of this situation is to start from a clean slate. Western economics and its bipolar world of capitalism and socialism must be consulted if and only if, and as and when, the need arises. One thing that will stand out in this approach is that it cannot take the Indian state as it exists today for granted. This is because it is a new kid on the block, and a democracy too. Kids grow and democracies change. Indian economists who want to start anew, therefore, don’t have the luxury of taking the Indian state for granted even subconsciously. It must not only be consciously understood but also reformed if need be.

At this point, it would be unjust of me if I should refrain from writing down what, in my view, was the kind of state that western economists took for granted. Western economists were dealing with European states such as England, France and Germany, all of which had a few important features which didn’t warrant mention because of their obviousness. First, they were all culturally and linguistically as homogenous as could have been imagined. Second, they were or had been monarchies with rather stable geographical boundaries for ages. Third, the people of those states had a clear sense of who constitutes ‘us’ and who constitutes ‘them’. Fourth, those states comprised of only one level of government—‘the’ government—which meant low power-distance. Fifth, the government was comprised of people who the public could call ‘us’ from a cultural or linguistic perspective; it was not—at least predominantly not—made up of ‘others’.

Let me end this article by contrasting the above with the Indian state, hoping it provides sufficient motivation for a new Indian economics. First, the Indian state is nowhere close to being culturally and linguistically homogeneous. Second, the Indian state with its current boundaries has never been the territory ruled in its entirety by any native monarch; there have always been multiple monarchies with relatively unstable geographic boundaries within India. Third, the people of the Indian state have never in history had a sense of Indianness; Indianness has never been and is not a proper identity. Therefore, despite recent assertions that it must change, ‘us’ and ‘them’ have been and continue to be words Indians use to describe themselves as much as they use it to describe non-Indians. Fourth, the Indian state has two important levels of government, central and state, with the former farther away from the people than the latter but possessing greater power. Fifth, the central government, which holds sovereign power and can define and redefine state boundaries, is predominantly made up of ‘others’ for most Indian cultural and linguistic peoples.

It is my contention that these differences are impossible to reconcile with the existing obsequious Indian economics. What we need is a completely new Indian economics—if we want to keep India one, that is. If the current economics continues, even without the knowledge of Indian economists, the entire political economy appears to be all set to move towards disintegration, simply because that is the underlying scenario in Europe. After all, nearly every feature of the state that western economists took for granted applies not to India as a whole but to the Indian ‘states’ which were carved out after the British left.

What Would Adam Smith Think of Our Budget?

“The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with most unnecessary attention but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of man who have folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”

With the Union Budget round the corner, it’s time to recollect what Adam Smith would have thought of people presenting budgets. He writes in The Wealth of Nations:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with most unnecessary attention but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of man who have folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”

That is, Mr. Jaitley:

  1. Is all set to get unnecessary attention,
  2. Has assumed an authority which can’t be safely trusted to any organization (council or senate), and
  3. Is doing something most dangerous since he thinks his government is fit to exercise that authority.

Smith was talking about a country like England, with only one government followed by local bodies. In a country like India, with a Central Government that has its hold over more than two dozen culturally and linguistically diverse states, Smith’s words above are all the more applicable.

(Image courtesy: volterra.co.uk)

Why Mohan Bhagwat is both right and wrong about Mother Teresa

Of course, Mother Teresa’s objective in doing charity work was conversion to Christianity, and I don’t think she would have considered it something shameful or worth hiding. She might not have done or presided over any conversions herself as her organization in Kolkata, Missionaries of Charity, has clarified, but that’s beside the point.

On February 23rd, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly said the following at Apna Ghar, a charity and service organization in Bharatpur, Rajasthan:

Here we will not provide service like that rendered by Mother Teresa. It is possible that her kind of work was good but there was a motive behind that service. It was to convert those she served to Christianity. Someone wants to convert others to Christianity, that is another thing, but to do it under the garb of social service is to devalue that service. Here, nothing like that will happen. In our country, social service is done like this, selflessly, completely selflessly.

Political parties and commentators opposed to the Sangh Parivar have unanimously criticized him for this. There are very few points on which I tend to agree with the RSS, but that doesn’t require me to reject everything he has said here.

Of course, Mother Teresa’s objective in doing charity work was conversion to Christianity, and I don’t think she would have considered it something shameful or worth hiding. She might not have done or presided over any conversions herself as her organization in Kolkata, Missionaries of Charity, has clarified, but that’s beside the point.

To suggest that Mother Teresa has nothing to do with the spread of Christianity in India is to suggest that Warren Anderson of Union Carbide had nothing to do with the Bhopal disaster. “Look, he didn’t let the gas out with his own hands!” – is that even an argument?

I see Mr. Bhagwat’s criticism to be directed against the entire Christian religion which openly uses charity as a delivery system for the Christian faith. Both Christians and non-Christians know it, and the Constitution of India allows it. In fact, except in situations like this one involving Mother Teresa, Christians are quite proud of conversions via charity. And, for someone like me (and Mr. Bhagwat) who doesn’t think Christianity must spread in India, charitable work indeed loses its sheen if it comes with the baggage of conversions.

Let me end with where I don’t agree with Mr. Bhagwat. It is in his last sentence where he says Hindus (that’s what he means by ‘in our country’) do social service “completely selflessly”.

I must remind Mr. Bhagwat that not enough of social service happens in our country to begin with. In fact, we Hindus have an entire system of alienating those capable of service from those who need it, which invites the Mother Teresas of the world in the first place. It’s called the caste system, and its effect is being amplified by the idea of India which your organization spreads, Mr. Bhagwat.

Also, most Hindu social service organizations in India hope to convince Hindus, themselves included, that even they can do what the Christians do. “Even we can take care of the sick, even we can give free education to the underprivileged” is the cry of these latecomers. And why do they do that? It’s not selflessness, Mr. Bhagwat, but a clear sense of self and a fear of losing it.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or that we Hindus shouldn’t do it. I’m saying we should do more of it, and also work to get rid of overall Pyramid of Corruption which associates purity and impurity, superiority and inferiority, to everything we can think of: people, languages, you name it. It’s time your organization, the RSS, stops defending and implementing it.

[First Published: IBNLive February 25, 2015 at 11:58AM, http://ift.tt/1BRqYis ]

Some Notes on the 14th Finance Commission’s Recommendation

Basically, when you spend your money, you’re very careful how much you pay; but when you spend someone else’s money, you aren’t that careful. Further, when you’re spending the money on yourself, you try to get as much value for money as possible; but when you spend it on someone else, you aren’t that careful to get as much value.

Milton Friedman, who won the 1976 Economics Nobel, has a wonderful way of explaining how one spends money. According to him, there are four ways of spending money as depicted in the table below.

Whose money you spend On whom you spend it
Yourself Someone else
Yours I.You pay less

You get more value

II.You pay less

They get less value

Someone else’s III.They pay more

You get more value

IV.They pay more

They get less value

 

Basically, when you spend your money, you’re very careful how much you pay; but when you spend someone else’s money, you aren’t that careful. Further, when you’re spending the money on yourself, you try to get as much value for money as possible; but when you spend it on someone else, you aren’t that careful to get as much value.

Friedman talks about this in his Free to Choose in the context of welfare schemes, but I think this can be used to analyze government spending in general. All governments spend someone else’s money. That is, all governments would like to claim that they operate only in Quadrant IV above. From the table, it is clear that the people ultimately pay more than what they’d pay if they were spending the money themselves (instead of the government). However, in reality, they ultimately do operate in Quadrant III also, i.e., they do end up spending someone else’s money on themselves, too (this is called operational cost).

So what happens in all government spending is that the people pay more and get less value. It’s the most inefficient way to spend money. The best option is to be in Quadrant I. Of course, governments have to exist and they have to spend some money, so ultimately the moral of the story here is that government spending must be minimal.

Let me now go to the next step and bring in two layers of government. In India, the central government sits in Quadrants III and IV. Clearly, Quadrant III spending should be minimal, which means the size of the central government and the projects it undertakes should be minimal to begin with. Coming to Quadrant IV, the central government is the ultimate spender of all the tax revenue it collects irrespective of what the finance commissions declare to be the best revenue-sharing formula between the centre and the states.

As per the recommendations of the 14th finance commission, the centre continues to get 58% of the tax revenue. This means 58% of the money paid as tax by the people of India will be spent in Quadrants III and IV by a government which is two layers above the people (the state governments being one layer above). That’s someone else’s someone else spending your money.

As far as the remaining 42% is concerned, this revenue will be spent in Quadrants III and IV by state governments, but this doesn’t automatically mean that your money will be spent by your state government, or that your state government is spending your money. This is because the basis for distribution of central tax revenue to states is not clear from the emerging news reports about the 14th finance commission. Historically, people in the more productive states have tended to pay for those in the less productive ones, and it is doubtful that that has completely changed this time around. In short, what we need is a way for central spending to further reduce.

Why India Wasn’t a Nation

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu’s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore‘s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu‘s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

The first difficulty in commenting on it is that I agree that India is a nation. Where I disagree with him is the why part, and as my title here makes it clear, on the idea that India was a nation. As I see it, India is a nation because there is one organization of politics and commerce encompassing India the country as we see it on the map today. And yes, it was indeed the British who created this organization. It’s not as if Sankrant doesn’t thank the British for it. In his own words, the “British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization.” That’s a clear recognition of British presence in the genes of the Indian nation of today – exactly the line I take in my book.

Coming to the question of definitions, what I call the nation is what Sankrant calls the nation-state in his section titled ‘The Modern States and Their Origins’. He admits that the very concept of nation-state (to use his word) is new to the entire world, not just to India. This, of course, is correct. But the problem is, in making the point that the world didn’t have nation-states until recently, Sankrant picks up tiny pieces of land in Europe – the nation-states of Europe, to be precise – and compares them with all of India taken as one nation-state. This is remarkable because it’s like comparing an apple to a apple tree.

That apart, after dismissing the ‘shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries’ as a way to ‘legitimize’ a ‘country’ (that’s a new word, but I’m not surprised), Sankrant goes on to suggest later in the article that India had something called political unity from the 6th Century BC. I will come to this notion of political unit shortly, but I’ll let you guess why he makes this argument if it’s no way to ‘legitimize a country’.

Next, Sankrant asks the question as to whether ‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation’ in India, suggesting, of course, that the answer is ‘yes’. To support ‘a particular geography’, he offers a physical map of Asia and asks his reader to ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘reflect on the significance of this geography’. These deep breaths work wonders in academic circles, don’t they?

Proceeding, Sankrant argues that ‘civilization’ developed on the ‘great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain’. Meanwhile, eminent historian K.A.Nilakanta Sastry writes on page 44 of his History of South India that the antiquity of human life in South India ‘goes back about 3,00,000 years’ and goes on to provide several reasons for this claim. There is a whole lot of recent research which suggests an independent centre of civilization in South India, away from the two river plains of North India mentioned by Sankrant. But this doesn’t figure in Sankrant’s north-centric narrative. The problem with this omission is, it destroys his very thesis that there was ‘a particular set of people’ with a ‘common socio-cultural geographical heritage’, that there was ‘a unique and diverse civilization’. The ‘diverse’ in this last claim, of course, is a weak, unsubstantiated (by him) and half-hearted plug for people who point out India’s diversity.

Sankrant then goes on to provide what he thinks of as examples of political unification in India’s history. Curiously, none of his examples (or any that anyone else can provide) are examples of unification of all of India. The Mauryas conquered almost all of India, admittedly, but did not touch south Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. He doesn’t mention that. The other kingdoms mentioned by him didn’t unify all of India even by his own admission. Kanishka didn’t go below central India; the Satavahanas didn’t touch the north; the Guptas didn’t go below the Narmada, but Sankrant pulls some interesting things from the top of his hat: that they were ‘possibly exerting political control even further down south’ and that the states of the south were ‘quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tributes to the Emperor’; and finally, the Chalukyas and Cholas didn’t conquer the north. Let me leave the Mughals and the British aside because they were indeed not native kingdoms, and everyone knows that they did more to politically unify India than any native kingdom. So much for Sankrant’s suggestion that there has been some sort of unbroken political unity in India.

He says ‘Thus, there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms’, but he has provided not an iota of evidence that any of these kingdoms had an ‘idea of India’, or for the claim that India was ‘separate and whole’ in any sense. All he has provided is proof of political change and shifting boundaries of kingdoms, not ‘internal kingdoms’. One can talk about ‘internal’ when the unit is first proved to exist, and that it can be seen as different from other units. And he hasn’t proved that. What he has proved is the existence of several units with changing boundaries and fortunes on Indian soil.

Āryāvarta
Āryāvarta (Source: Wikipedia)

Next, Sankrant proceeds to his own trap by claiming that ‘the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years’. Many things can start appearing when one is dreaming, and here it is the idea that Aryavarta was all of India. Sankrant purposely twists Manusmriti 2.22 in reporting Aryavrata as a land ‘stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans’ according to the text. In reality, even this sentence of his doesn’t make any sense. There’s half of India lying between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and it’s outrageous to say that there’s one piece of land from ‘the Himalayas and Vindhyas’ to something else. You don’t combine the Himalayas and the Vindhyas like that. They’re two separate mountain ranges unconnected to each other.

For a sentence which claims that there is something which stretches from A (Himalayas) and B (Vindhyas) all the way to C (eastern oceans) and D (western oceans) to make sense, A, B, C, and D must form a quadrilateral with A and B as one pair of adjacent sides, and C and D the other pair. But here, if only one looks at a map, A and B are opposite sides, as are C and D. Clearly, this is an attempt to confuse readers into thinking that Manusmriti refers to all of India using the word Aryavarta, while in fact, only the India above the Vindhyas is referred. It is this region of India which he is calling by the name Bharatavarsha, not the whole of India unless you haven’t recovered from the deep breath he wanted you to take earlier.

Sankrant mentions Mahabharata and Ramayana as further proofs of ‘Bharatavarsha or Aryavarta’. While there is no doubt that these epics are popular all over India, he forgets that they are popular even outside it – for example in Cambodia, Thailand, etc. He also forgets to mention lands south of the Vindhyas when he says the Mahabharata ‘shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context’. To be fair, names of kingdoms down south are indeed mentioned in both; I’m only pointing out the fact that it suffices for Sankrant to take names from the north. But to come to the larger point he’s making, it is indeed true that these two epics talk about a large part of what we call India today. The question is: So what? They’re chanting Buddhist texts in China, Japan and Korea even today. So what?

After talking about Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sankrant is acutely aware that these are texts written in the north, in Sanskrit, and wants to prove that there’s been flow in the opposite direction, too. For this he mentions the Bhakti movement, crediting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for its origin. That’s quite nice, thank you from a Kannadiga, but so what? Let us agree that post the 6th or 7th century AD, there has indeed been this cultural export from South India. So what? Does it prove the existence of an Indian nation or nation-state as in ‘organization of politics and commerce’? No. All it proves is that there has been quite a bit of religious churning within the Indian subcontinent, that the north pioneered the culture of today, and that the south made its contribution beginning the 6th or 7th century AD.

In the rest of his article, Sankrant takes the usual path of taking religion as the basis to claim that there was an Indian nation. If this is all he had to claim, why did he get into the mess he got into with respect to politics? Why did he have to twist the Manusmriti and redefine Aryavarta to fit his political message? I will gladly agree that India is the land of Hinduism, although I will never cease to point out in the same breath that it is extremely diverse and that it sets a not-so-good example of handling human diversity with its caste system, its method of attaching inferiority and purity to people, languages, everything. In fact, I increasingly tend to take S.N.Balagangadhara‘s view that there is no Hinduism at all, if and when I’m forced to reckon with someone who doesn’t admit these things. And I don’t see Sankrant Sanu admiting these things. And finally, what has religion got to do with nationalism, unless as a nation we agree to do nothing more than meditate or worship?

To summarize, then, Sankrant Sanu hasn’t provided any evidence of an Indian nation existing before the British, if by nation one means what Rabindranath Tagore meant, i.e., an organization of politics and commerce. He has, however, reiterated the fact that Hinduism exists almost all over India. He has tried to force fit history and religious texts to support his political message, and has hidden the fact that the roots of Hinduism lie in the India above the Vindhyas. He has taken a definition of nation which has nothing to do with politics and economics (‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, with a common socio-cultural geographical heritage’) and applied it mostly to Aryavarta, misinterpreting it as all of India. He has displayed no understanding of the pre-history of South India. In all, he hasn’t said anything which proves that India, as we know it today, was a nation. Nobody ever has, or can, and I take this point up in detail in my book. As to India being a nation today, all one needs is to mention the Constitution of India.

Why People Say Sanskrit is the Mother of Kannada And Why They Are Wrong

It’s quite common to bump into people who think it is, but Kannada is not a derivative, a simplification, a corruption, or in short, a daughter of Sanskrit. Based on etymological and grammatical considerations, linguists place Kannada and Sanskrit in two separate language families, viz., Dravidian and Indo-Aryan. If this is the case, why are people misinformed? What prompts even educated Kannadigas to wrongly claim that Sanskrit is the mother of Kannada?

There are four main reasons.

1. Idea of Sanskrit as the mega-matriarch

There is this idea that Sanskrit is the mother of all the languages of the world. Kannada’s is a special case of this. The problem with this idea is that it has no scientific backing. Linguists have shown that it is impossible to derive (using laws primarily of sound change) every language in the world from Sanskrit. That is, it is impossible to propose simple transformation rules (such as old Kannada’s p changing to h in modern Kannada) to show that every language is derived from Sanskrit. Nor is it possible in the case of Kannada. Every now and then appears a novice who gets excited about one or two words in Kannada, known not to be of Sanskrit origin, “appearing similar” to words in Sanskrit. He or she then makes the claim that it proves the genetic relationship between the two languages. But for such claims to hold any water, he or she has to show that it is a general rule – and that’s impossible.

2. Confusing writing with language

Many people cannot differentiate writing from language. Driven by this misconception, they look at Kannada writing, see that there are a lot of Sanskrit or Sanskrit-based words, and conclude that the Kannada language itself must be a derivative of Sanskrit. They talk in fancy percentages: “50% of Kannada is Sanskrit”, “60% of Kannada is Sanskrit”, etc. Apart from the lack of statistical backing for the actual numbers, such claims are wrong for the simple reason that writing and speech are two different things. Especially in the case of Kannada, writing, an elite preoccupation, has deviated significantly from speech due to the very fact of over-usage of Sanskrit words. The percentage claims on the language as a whole would be valid if what applies to writing applied to speech too, but this is not the case. Kannadigas make fun of those who speak Kannada like it’s written: that’s what immigrants do after picking up cheap books claiming to teach spoken Kannada. Much of written Kannada is unintelligible to common Kannadiga, not because he or she is incapable of grasping the content, but because of excessive use of Sanskrit words. There is an ongoing Kannada language movement which aims to fix these problems and bring written Kannada closer to the spoken language (including coining words) so that the benefits of writing and the ability to contribute to it are available to one and all. This is a requirement in today’s age of compulsory primary education, a concept new to every Indian language, not just Kannada.

3. Grammatical mistakes

There is the question of grammar, which is closely related to the above point. Kannada’s grammatical tradition, right fromKavirajamarga (850 CE) up until a decade or so ago, has essentially followed Sanskrit’s, basically because of the huge influence of Sanskrit on the initial grammarians and the fact that Kannada literature was also quite heavily Sanskritised in its earlier stages. Thus, if the Sanskrit grammarians wrote of seven vibhaktis, Kannada grammarians followed suit even though only three could be properly called so in Kannada, and even though, unlike in Sanskrit, no vibhakti pratyaya in Kannada denotes gender and number over and above the noun-verb relationship. If the Sanskrit grammarians talked of karakas, the Kannada grammarians followed suit even though the very concept was unnecessary – unlike in Sanskrit, the mapping between vibhakti and meaning is one-to-one in Kannada. If the Sanskrit grammarians described samasas based on whether the second, first, both, or neither of the two participating words are central to the new word, their Kannada counterparts copied them even though every Kannada samasa has the second word as the central one. And then, if the Sanskrit grammarians described Sanskrit sandhi rules, Kannada grammarians applied all of them to Kannada grammar although it isn’t necessary at all. One could go on and on about this, but the point is – if one picks up any popular Kannada grammar book, one gets the idea that Kannada’s grammar is derived from Sanskrit’s. But really, this is only a case of bad grammar writing. Put differently, the unwritten Kannada grammar on people’s tongues is very unlike Sanskrit’s, but the existing written grammars of Kannada tell a different – and wrong – story. Thankfully, this is being rectified as we speak.

4. The question of content

There was very little original writing in Kannada until very recently. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a large part of theKannada corpus is essentially the result of a vernacularisation of Sanskrit literature. This has led to the idea that Sanskrit is the mother of Kannada, although nobody adds the qualifier ‘when it comes to literature’. But the fact is, although language acts as a carrier for content, the two cannot be equated. Thus, when we translate English content into Kannada, which we’re doing quite a bit, English doesn’t become the latest mother of Kannada. Also, original writing in Kannada is now very much on the rise, and this originality has named people for mothers and fathers. There is still a lot of the aforementioned vernacularisation process left to be completed, but there’s little focus on it due to noise from people lacking understanding of what Sanskrit really has to offer. They forget content and think learning Sanskrit is like learning every Indian language including Kannada. But that is just a bad joke.

[First published: Huffington Post, 16-02-2015]

Nationalism and the ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ Idea

The sages of India have produced perhaps the most humanistic philosophy in the world; it is second to none at any rate. Despite all the obvious diversity, those accomplished souls essentially saw the oneness of man wherever he is in the world.

However, the oneness they saw was spiritual, not material. When this simple fact is forgotten, diversity doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and all hell breaks loose. The Indian concept that the entire world is one’s family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam) is a spiritual one whereas the concept of nationalism isn’t. One can’t use the former to justify the latter, but that is exactly what we do in India.

Nationalism is essentially a materialistic concept; it has nothing to do with spirituality. It developed in Europe which is, to say the least, a desert of spirituality. When a culture that had never considered all human beings as one with any seriousness had to come up with a solution to conflicts arising due to the admixture of diverse peoples on European soil, it hit upon what we now call nationalism. This was a way of building what Rabindranath Tagore described as “narrow domestic walls” across which there wouldn’t be too many unmonitored interactions. The Europeans never thought of it in Tagore’s terms, of course; for them nationalism was a natural expression of their culture.

This European material culture imposed itself all over the world like a cancer for several centuries in order to suck it dry of resources, the Indian idea that the world is one family be damned. It spread slavery and created colonies wherever it went, and those slaves and colonies had no option but to respond on the same level as the imposing culture. That is, they had no option but to acquire the European disease of nationalism. Despite all pretense, Indian nationalism is no exception to this.

Although it got this disease, India hasn’t let go of its cultural roots, its idea of the spiritual oneness of all humanity in particular. However, the fact that nationalism is a materialistic concept hasn’t registered fully within India. Used to seeing everything as a spiritual concept, Indian intellectuals with even a rudimentary exposure to Indian philosophy consider the nation, too, as something spiritual. That is why we see right from pre-independence days to today, the names of sages such as Adi Shankara being roped in to justify Indian nationalism. Exactly what they said which requires one political unit called India is never discussed.

But taking materialism out of nationalism, even for a moment, is taking everything out of it. There is nothing in nationalism except dry material transactions with profits and losses. Adding spirituality to the idea of a nation, on the other hand, actually creates a great danger. This, too, is hard to understand for the seasoned Indian philosopher and the novice alike. How can there be anything which my culture of spirituality cannot elevate? This being the fundamental confusion, Indian intellectuals continue to flog a dead horse.

Nationalism, a material concept developed to protect different peoples from hurting each other, as it were, requires one to acknowledge that different peoples exist in the first place, and to recognize those peoples as separate nations. Taking language as the fundamental difference marker, this would mean two dozen or so nations in the place of India. But this is not what we have; what we have is one nation. Plus, there’s the idea that people must give up their diversity to conform. The most erudite reason given for this idea is that Indian philosophy requires us to think of everyone as belonging to the same family. Never mind the fact that that was not meant in the materialistic sense, and never mind that we’re applying this only to India and not the entire vasudhaa (world).

Let us not mind these things either, for argument’s sake, and see what happens when this confusion between spiritualism and materialism enters Indian nationalism. One-sixth of humanity is tucked under one umbrella and all diversity is forgotten in an essentially materialistic setting. The result is that the exact same explosive situation which led to dozens of nations in Europe exists in India, too, but there is no attempt to deal with it. Instead, there’s the repeated assertion that the said situation is unreal and created by those who are unspiritual and anti-national. In reality, it is created by those who refuse to take the realistic definition of nationalism. Again, those who are called unspiritual are not even supposed to be spiritual, and those who are called anti-national are actually national in the real sense of the term, which is materialistic.

In India, the explosive situation in the above paragraph has a very specific nature. It is nothing but the inequality of the Pyramid of Corruption. This is a term I use for the caste-system and everything related to it. This Pyramid has the pure Brahmana at the apex, followed by the Kshatriya and the Vaishya and finally the Shudra at the bottom. Hundreds of millions of Indians, including the whole of South India, are Shudra, and in the context of nationalism, it means that they are ripe for oppression by the other Varnas. In ethnic terms, the lower castes of Aryans and all the non-Aryans are at a risk of economic and political exploitation by high-caste Aryans, and the risk has been triggered. What makes this situation explosive is the fact that all these material differences are neglected by the popular idea of India. It urges us to think on a spiritual plane whereas the crime is happening on the material plane.

Therefore, at the root of India’s problems lies a refusal to think of nationalism as something purely materialistic, and a mistaken belief that spiritualism can elevate the crass materialism of nations. Those who worship Bharat Mata may not have the intention to cause harm. But their refusal to come to terms with what nationalism really is, and their attempt to deify the undeifiable, are nothing but harm. So, the next time you hear someone uphold the oneness of humanity, I hope you ask them whether it’s physical or spiritual oneness; and the next time someone justifies Indian nationalism on spiritual grounds, I hope you tell them they have no clue what they’re talking about.

AAP and the limits of expansionism

Why did AAP win Delhi? Can AAP do to the rest of India what it did to Delhi?

Among many answers to the first question, one must stand out as important: the party had its ears to the ground, i.e., it spent most of its time listening to those at the bottom of the pyramid of power instead of imposing the images and words of supermen from above. That they didn’t have any supermen in the first place helped them become popular with laypeople, providing them an impression of flatness of organization and ideology. Everyone, it appeared, was welcome to AAP as long as they weren’t with “the bad guys”.

But organizational and ideological flatness within AAP is a myth. It was stated in exactly these terms by some, who left the party, but one doesn’t need a proof for it; it’s a truism. Any well-run political party must have a command and control structure, and those who command and control must, in a well-known hierarchy, be above those who are commanded and controlled.

When the organization isn’t large enough, hierarchy doesn’t come in the way of its being close to the ground: the voices from below reach the top because the top isn’t too high up in the air.

Why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up to answer my second question above, as to whether AAP can do a Delhi with all of India. AAP’s relative flatness compared to BJP and Congress, which was good enough for the geographically insignificant area of Delhi, is not scalable as it tries to “go national”. Localness isn’t expandable from one locus.

For starters, the very name of the party is in a foreign language for most of India: Hindi. The language of Delhi, it is considered a dangerous threat to liberty in South and East India; there aren’t any Aam Aadmis there to begin with; that’s an alien expression. The actual Aam Aadmi, who speaks an Indo-Aryan language like Hindi, is not exactly welcome in South or East India because he comes to replace the native Dravidian or Tibeto-Burman, to colonize.

No successful organization, because of its inevitable hierarchy, can maintain even an impression of flatness when it expands beyond a certain size, or beyond certain natural boundaries such as those of language and ethnicity as discussed above.

The Congress and the BJP have mastered the art, of not even putting up a facade of flatness, in “going national”. They essentially operate without the advantage which AAP had in this Delhi victory, and they’re not apologetic about it. In fact, they want the peoples of India to apologize for being diverse and making it difficult for them to keep their ears to the ground.

AAP’s fate will be no different as it tries to expand beyond Delhi. Aloofness from the ground is in the very nature of expansionism. I’m not saying this to cast my vote in favor of the BJP or the Congress. Far from it, I am saying this to forewarn the peoples of India against falling for another national party to rule over them thinking it will be fundamentally different from the existing ones. The thing to learn from AAP is that localness is the way forward, and this naturally requires rejecting AAP everywhere outside Delhi.

 

[First published: IBNLIVE, 11-02-2015]