Pankaj Mishra has Lost the Plot

In addition to the regular side of bullshit that is a David Brooks column, there was a special dose of crazy in last Saturday’s  opinion section of the New York Times.  A highbrow word salad from none other than Pompous Pankaj Mishra. In case you didn’t read it, let me briefly paraphrase Mishra. Shorter Mishra, India is  worse than ISIS  and also Russia and Imperial Japan.  He did not say whether it is worse than the Ebola virus, perhaps that is the subject of the next essay.

He starts with a kernel of truth but  his conclusions, sound like projection.  Kernel of truth: Narendra Modi’s ascent to the most important political office in India is troubling especially in light of the riots that took place during his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat. This to Mishra is proof enough of the malevolence of the Indian electorate in general and the Indian diaspora in particular.

Mishra begins by quoting the father of pompous intellectuals of Indian heritage,  V. S. Naipaul.  According to both Naipaul and Mishra, upper caste Indians are an intellectually insecure lot, not something I necessarily disagree with but I think the brush strokes of this painting are too broad for my liking.  After all,  this description could easily fit both Mishra and Naipaul, who are as upper caste as they come.

First he paraphrases Naipaul, then goes on to give us his own pearls of wisdom;

These well-born Indians betrayed a craze for “phoren” consumer goods and approval from the West, as well as a self-important paranoia about the “foreign hand.” “Without the foreign chit,” Mr. Naipaul concluded, “Indians can have no confirmation of their own reality.”

Today a new generation of Indian nationalists lurches between victimhood and chauvinism, and with ominous implications. As the country appears to rise (and simultaneously fall), many ambitious members of a greatly expanded and fully global Hindu middle class feel frustrated in their demand for higher status from white Westerners.

What does  fully global Hindu middle class, mean anyway? Has Mishra been hanging out with the same cab driver who ferries Tom Friedman? Mishra, then goes on to quote several Modi acolytes. He then asserts that their ridiculous theories of Hindu supremacy are representative of the Indian elite.  Who qualifies as elite in Mishra’s eyes, I wonder?  What about the person he sees in the mirror, everyday?

Mishra is assuming that Narendra Modi, despite all his talk of moderation,  is going to put the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s exclusionary ideology of India as a Hindu nation, in practice,  and that this is a popular sentiment in India. This  claim, is not borne out by India’s history both pre and post independence.  The Sangh and its ideology are nothing new.  Hindutva has been around for almost a hundred years. Plenty of time for this ideology to have become mainstream, won’t you say? Before Mr. Modi there has been only one time when a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician has headed the central government in Delhi, that was Mr. Atal Bihari Vajapayee, who led the coalition government in the late nineties.  While it is true that RSS is the dog that wags the BJP tail, both Modi and Vajpayee before him have sought to minimize their RSS connections.  Precisely, because RSS and their ideology is neither mainstream nor popular in India today or has been at any other time since the inception of RSS.

Mid column, Mishra’s goes off on a weird tangent, in what almost seems like a part of another essay where he compares India to Russia and Imperial Japan.  Evidence please, to support this pseudo intellectual word salad.

These wounds were caused, and are deepened, by failed attempts to match Western power through both mimicry and collaboration (though zealously anti-Western, Chinese nationalism has developed much more autonomously in comparison). Largely subterranean until it erupts, this ressentiment of the West among thwarted elites can assume a more treacherous form than the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban. The intellectual history of right-wing Russian and Japanese nationalism reveals an ominously similar pattern as the vengeful nativism of Hindu nationalists: a recoil from craving Western approval into promoting religious-racial supremacy.

The Russian elite, created by the hectic Westernizing ventures of Peter the Great, was the first to articulate the widespread sense of inadequacy and failure created in societies trying to catch up with the modern West. In 1836, Pyotr Chaadaev argued in “First Philosophical Letter” that, “We belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither.” His eloquent self-pity, which shook up Pushkin as well as Gogol and Tolstoy, inaugurated the semi-Westernized Russian elite’s tormented search for a native identity to uphold against the West.

Where Mishra completely lost me in this unedited rant about Indians and their nationalism was the fact that he wrote approvingly of China’s “non-western” nationalism.  After four paragraphs on this strange trajectory, Mishra suddenly remembers the essay he started writing and goes on to bash his favorite bugbear, the half-baked or semi westernized (his words) Indian;

The fantasies of racial-religious revenge and redemption that breed in Western suburbs as well as posh Indian enclaves today speak of a vast spiritual desolation as well as a deepening intellectual crisis. Even Mr. Naipaul briefly succumbed to the pathology of mimic machismo he had despised (and, later, also identified among chauvinists in Muslim countries). He hailed the vandalizing by a Hindu mob of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, which triggered nationwide massacres of Muslims, as the sign of an overdue national “awakening.”

Naipaul who Mishra approvingly quotes in the beginning may be of Indian heritage, but he has never been an Indian citizen. To claim that his opinions are representative is ridiculous, as is the claim that the self selected group of people of Indian heritage who showed up last month to see Modi are representative of the Indian diaspora.

There are many more such nonresident Indians in the West today, vicariously living history’s violent drama in their restless exile: In Madison Square Garden, in New York, last month, more than 19,000 people cheered Mr. Modi’s speech about ending India’s millennium-long slavery. But hundreds of millions of uprooted Indians are also now fully exposed to demagoguery. In an unprecedented public intervention this month, the present chief of the R.S.S., who wants all Indian citizens to identify themselves as Hindus since India is a “Hindu nation,” appeared on state television to rant against Muslim infiltrators and appeal for a boycott of Chinese goods.

Such crude xenophobia, now officially sanctioned in Mr. Modi’s India, seems only slightly less menacing than the previous R.S.S. chief’s wishful thinking about one more Mahabharata against demonic anti-Hindus. Japan’s expansionist gambles in China and the Pacific in the last century and, more recently, Russia’s irredentism in Ukraine show that a mainstreamed rhetoric of national aggrandizement can quickly slide into reckless warmongering. Certainly, the ruling classes of wannabe superpowers have spawned a complex force: the ideology of anti-imperialist imperialism, which, forming an axis with the modern state and media and nuclear technology, can make Islamic fundamentalists seem toothless. One can only hope that India’s democratic institutions are strong enough to constrain yet another wounded elite from breaking out for geopolitical and military manhood.

Is Mishra  projecting when speaks about these so called semi-western Indians who supposedly worry about what white westerners say about them?

As for anti-western rhetoric, it has always been a part of Indian politics, both on the left and right, especially before independence and immediately afterwards. Given India’s experience with British rule, this is not surprising. In fact Swadeshi, or buying goods made in India was a major weapon in the struggle for independence both under Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohandas Gandhi, both leaders of the Congress in British India and upper caste Indian elite to boot.

Indian leaders starting with Jawaharlal Nehru saw the post war American rise in global politics a continuation of British hegemony pre WWII.  It is precisely why India allied itself with the Soviets during the Cold War.  A decision made by center-left Congress Party not the BJP or its predecessor, the Jan Sangh.  So I don’t think that the anti-west rhetoric of some of Modi’s supporters means what Mishra thinks it means.

Even  if the Indian elite who Mishra despises is every bit as craven as his assertions, Indian democracy is not as fragile as he fears, it has survived and thrived for over sixty years, and has held free and fair elections to determine its leaders since its independence in 1947. Not something one can say either about Russia or Imperial Japan or Mishra’s favorite, China. Indian democracy has survived among other things, Prime minister Indira Gandhi’s attempt to usurp power in 1975 after a stinging electoral defeat and the assassinations of two of its Prime Ministers (Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi).  Yes the Indian democracy has its flaws, which democracy doesn’t? India’s elected leaders have been all too human with feet of clay, and let down the people who elected them. As for the diaspora, Indian Constitution does not allow for a dual citizenship and there are no absentee ballots, so most of those Modi followers in NYC either can’t or won’t be able to vote in the Indian elections.  So even if they are all, as rabid as Mishra claims, they have no franchise in  India’s electoral politics.

Indian voters showed the earlier government lead by BJP the door, when they realized that  BJP’s India shining campaign was all sizzle and no steak. If Modi starts unnecessary wars and does not deliver on his economic agenda, he won’t last beyond one term.   Yes, Narendra Modi’s Sangh antecedents and his performance during the Godhra riots, as well, are a cause for concern but there is no reason to believe that a majority of India’s citizenry, even among those who voted for the BJP has drunk the RSS Kool-aid.  I need more evidence than the ranting of a few reactionaries to hit the panic button.  I have more faith in the pragmatism of the Indian electorate than the blathering of either Mishra or the current RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

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Posted on October 28, 2014, in India, Punditubbies say Hello and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for pointing this out. Good lord what a mess of an opinion piece. I think he just uses big words and historical references to sound smart to uninformed people. I think it is sort of like the comment that Newt Gingrich is what stupid people think a smart person sounds like. This is what informed commentary about the rest of the world sounds like, to people who have never traveled outside their state of birth and no nothing about either history or geography.

    For example, Russia has a real identity issue, due to the fact it straddles both Europe and Asia. Russia borders both Finland and has sea ports on the Pacific Ocean, shares borders with China, Mongolia and North Korea and this is after the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, which took away some Eastern European territory (Ukraine, Belarus, etc.) and Central Asian territory (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc.).

    Also, India is too diverse ethnically for any one group to declare themselves racially superior. How exactly do you define race in India? With 20+ languages, differences in each region, with regards to Hindu customs and most importantly a seemingly endless number castes and sub-castes that also vary by region, how exactly can you get Hindus onboard to view themselves as one distinct group to begin with?

    Nair’s, in Kerala, are not identifying with Naidu’s, in Andra Pradesh, or Chettiar’s, in Tamil Nadu, or Gandhi’s, in Gujarat, even though they are all Hindus.

    • RSS has tried for 90 years but not been successful beyond a small group of Indians. In my opinion, Indians tend to identify more with their language group more than anything else, even the states are linguistically defined. For example, the Marathi identity or the Gujarati identity or the Tamil identity is stronger than the Hindu identity. Also Hinduism is not monolithic, there are huge regional differences.

  2. Another Holocene Human

    You know, I see a lot of young, middle class bi-continental Indians today (middle class over in India meaning something different from the States, but give the States a few years, who are deeply interested in development projects and building better, lower tech, cheaper, more practical mousetraps, both to fit Indian conditions and perhaps also to show that “Big money, big iron” (bigger is better) North American approaches may not always be the best way. Which combines a spiritual and moral direction, nationalism, self-esteem, and, well, a desire to choose the best out of both tradition.

    So where is this crisis exactly? Seems like stupid navel gazing and projection. I couldn’t really read Mishra as he was reminding me too much of crappy neo-con “pundits” in the 1990s whining that the West couldn’t get it up (*cough* war) any more.

  3. Missed the starting gun

    Word salad indeed! Your takedown of this pretentious fool is spot on. And I say that as some one who deeply distrusts Narendra Modi and the BJP/RSS. But this idiot Mishra can’t string two logical sentences together and rambles on about Peter the Great, Ukraine, Japan and who knows what else — I could not finish reading his drivel.

    If I favored conspiracy theories, I would say that he is secretly on the RSS payroll . . .

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