Over the past decade, I’ve spent a good deal of my time in Washington, DC, my wife’s hometown. Soon we’ll be moving on, which concentrates my mind on what I will miss about the US. The peerless maple syrup. Talking politics with my in-laws, who, despite it all, still proudly refer to themselves as Octogenarians for Obama. The Quiet Car on the Acela Express train from DC to New York. The chirpy American purposefulness in getting things done. But among the things I will not much miss is the heavily instrumental attitude towards India that I so often encounter in the US.
American perceptions of India have been transformed over the past decade, of course. It would be fair to say that American interest in India—on the political, economic and media fronts—is higher than ever. We take pride in this—feel flattered and bolstered by the attention. And certainly it matters—for it’s America’s attentiveness that has helped to focus the minds of others also on India.
But we do need to ask: Why this interest? And I should emphasize that the mot juste is “interest”, not fascination. Unlike the British and the Europeans, who have a long, complex history with India, Americans are more interested in India than they are intrigued by it. What they wish to know about India, the knowledge they seek, is a transactional form of knowledge—knowledge that can be put to use to help them secure larger economic and strategic aims, with which they hope India might assist them.
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Americans are interested in the American jobs—created or lost—that India’s growth represents. They are interested in how India might further US interests vis-a-via China. They are interested in how India can help stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan. To these particular and hard-edged ends, their academies and think tanks, institutes and government departments, set to work.
As much as I bridle, sitting across dinner tables from the fluent, genial mouthpieces of this narrowly construed set of interests, my wife sets strict quotas on my complaints about this and most other things. Instead, she orders me to be more rigorous in my analysis of those aspects of her homeland that I find irritating, and consider the possibility that such irritation sometimes masks a bit of admiration (such self-improving advice is quintessentially American—not, of course, that I am complaining about it...).
Closer: (from clockwise top left) US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle interacting with children during their recent visit to India:Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times; Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: Pankaj Nangia/ Bloomberg;A tourist enjoying a camel ride during the inaugural ceremony of the International Camel Festival in Bikaner earlier this month: PTI
And after 10 years, I find that I am indeed struck by the American way of thinking about other countries, including India: its unapologetic, pretenceless stance that, in foreign policy, there are no other interests to consider but its own. Obama is far more internationalist in mindset than his predecessor, but still, when he visited India, he encased himself in an entourage of over 200 American business leaders, lest his countrymen mistake his visit as interest in the world’s largest democracy on its own terms. And he was quite happy to entice applause out of an audience of Indian corporate stars, as he declared that the orders signed during his visit would generate 50,000 jobs back in his own country.
Watching Obama, and watching his predecessor, I’ve come to believe that we Indians could do with a bit of cognitive instrumentalism ourselves.
Fault lines: (clockwise from top left) Maoist guerrillas of the People’s War Group holding a meeting in Bihar: AFP; The 26/11 Mumbai attack: Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times; supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, the alleged killer of Pakistan’s Punjab governor Salman Taseer, in Rawalpindi earlier this month: Muhammed Muheisen/AP.
Today, the Indian state seems particularly inept at generating the kind of knowledge it requires as it tries to realize its global aspirations. We have severe deficits when it comes to producing our own information, on the basis of which our strategic and policy decisions can be taken, our greatest long-term hopes pursued. The two major security threats we face, external and internal, embody this current lack.
Our understanding of Pakistan’s intentions towards us—and whether or not it will decide to pursue the most dangerous of those intentions—are largely rooted in our comprehension of the thinking of that country’s political elites: in their generational hopes and fears, as well as the individual quirks of civilian and military leaders. These are the men (and, more rarely, women) with whom our leaders have to deal and manoeuvre, parley and finesse, persuade and induce—and about whom detailed portraits, information and assessments, and a sense of how they see the future of their own worlds, are vital tools. Yet the informational base on which our leaders have to rely in dealing with them tends in some crucial respects to be drawn from material produced elsewhere, most usually the US—information that necessarily has its own biases and is driven by its own purposes.
Or take a very different kind of threat: that emanating from the impoverished areas of the country in which Maoists are operating. We all acknowledge that these parts of the country are in great social and economic distress. But our sense of the nature of that distress is appallingly general. Our government and our social scientists lack the detailed, rigorous field studies that would illuminate, in a nuanced, non-ideological fashion, the key drivers and the casual chains that lead towards violent agitation. It’s all the more galling, then, to learn that it’s the Maoists themselves who turn out to be, in addition to gun-toting militants, rather expert social scientists with a more impressive grasp of the structures of contemporary agrarian society than our own government. Some in their membership have done real field work to advance plausible explanations of why so many Indian citizens feel compelled to take to armed revolt.
India, like America, is hectic with opinionators who would like to lull us into thinking we know—already (Western writers’ favourite word for India, “teeming”, is entirely appropriate for the 21st century proliferation of pundits, Eastern and Western). But serious knowledge—knowledge which is usable in the real world—derives from genuine puzzlement. In India and the US, I see that puzzlement all too rarely.
How to generate, in India, a thirst for real knowledge—and then to create it, and then to go on to use it advantageously to create humane and intelligent policy, whether for national security or for internal social justice? Sadly, in Delhi, as in Washington, it often takes acute crisis to convince the leadership of the importance of improving the quality of the information on which policy is made. After 9/11 in the US, and after 26/11 in Mumbai, both governments began to recognize how little they knew about coordinating and assessing knowledge scattered across different branches of the state. But even that doesn’t get to the root of the matter.
Paradoxically, often the knowledge that lends itself most effectively to instrumental use is that which is created by arcane specialisms—as well as by what is often called pure, basic or theoretical research. The specifics and nuances matter enormously, whether the question is why tenant farmers in Bastar (Chhattisgarh) have failed to profit from an increase in Indian and global food consumption, or why the education level of Pakistani suicide bombers is increasingly high. Such seeming paradoxes need to be objectively interrogated and understood if we are to have effective reactions. And it is invariably in pure or basic research that fundamental questions—usually sidestepped—get asked.
Like many in America, Indians today enjoy feeling smarter and superior to their counterparts in other countries—we like to think that we already know why Pakistan is in a mess, how corruption works in our own country, how we can stop terrorism, how we can make our society less unjust. But more often than not, we understand such issues either through hearsay or by means of knowledge which others have produced for their own ends. We are too happy to be consumers of knowledge, too lazy about creating it ourselves.
Imagine America acting in Iran based on knowledge generated in Australia—it’s conceivable, certainly, but it’s not a reliable way on which to base the knowledge architecture of a modern state. Though the Iraq war showed that American knowledge of other countries is sometimes spectacularly erratic, it is typically Made in the USA, or at least intensely scrutinized there—and fiercely assessed in terms of American interest. As India comes into its own as a prominent global actor, we have sometimes favoured ostentatious, noisy brands of nationalisms. But one nationalism, or better, patriotism, that remains underdeveloped is a commitment to create and mobilize the knowledges needed to be able truly to be the best judges of our own interests, as we should be. Whether in fields of advanced technology, medical science, social justice or national security, we’ll need to figure out what to do on the basis of precise knowledge generated in relation to our own predicaments, internal and external: knowledge that should be objective, as seen from where we sit in the world. We need this new knowledge base not because of any defensiveness about the judgements of outsiders—let us have those judgements too, and more and more. But in the end, we need our own knowledge, because it’s our country’s future at stake.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Later this year, he will become director of the India Institute at King’s College, London.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org