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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  Can India be modernized without being westernized?

Can India be modernized without being westernized?

Narendra Modi says India needs modernization not westernization. Is one possible without the other?

Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Mint (Mint )Premium
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Mint
(Mint )

Speaking to students at Pune’s Fergusson College on Sunday last, Gujarat chief minister and prime minister-aspirant Narendra Modi said, “We need modernization, not westernization." But does westernization inevitably tailgate modernization? Philosophers and economists have been divided on the issue.

Friedrich August Hayek, the Austrian-born philosopher and economist best known for his defence of classical liberalism, seemed to think it did, claiming that market economy inevitably required cultural underpinnings in the form of a set of “modern" values based on individualism. It’s a view echoed by American political scientist Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama for whom modernization, westernization, and democratization are all part of a single, unilinear process that will conclude when other cultures essentially ape the West. As opposed to this are the theories of cultural variation, which assert that there are different roads to modernization and different conclusions to the process of modernization.

Of course, the very definition of modernization and Westernization presents major difficulties.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that while all cultures experience certain similarities in the modernization process, each still retains its unique characteristics. Indeed, Huntington thinks of the West as one of only several major civilizations around the world. Huntington asserted that modernization consists of “industrialization; urbanization; increasing levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization; and more complex and diverse occupational structures."

The two nations that have certainly yanked themselves into modernity through rapid industrialization in the post war era are Japan and China. Since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Tokugawa government first opened Japan to Western business and influence, the country has gone through two periods of rapid economic development. The objective each time was to ensure that Japan became so powerful and wealthy that its independence would never again be threatened.

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japanese leaders enforced a new Western-oriented education system for the young, sending thousands of students to the US and Europe, and hiring thousands of teachers from the West to teach modern science, mathematics, technology, and foreign languages in Japan. Later, after the devastations of the Second World War, the country focused on rebuilding its lost industrial capacity, making major investments in power, coal, iron and steel, and chemical fertilizers. By the mid-1950s, production matched pre-war levels.

China, of course, is a more recent success story. The country has more than tripled its share in world exports between 1990 and now. With a huge focus on large-scale manufacturing, it is all set to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next 3-7 years.

Yet, neither China nor Japan fits into the perfect model of Westernization, though Japan with its democratic systems and its market-driven economy is more akin to the Western model than traditional Asian societies. It has always been important for Japan to disassociate itself, in Western minds, with “a decrepit and backward Asia". In fact, the influence of the West is visible in most Japanese surges with 19th century Japanese authors openly advocating a policy of datsu-A nyü-Ö (leaving Asia and joining the West).

China has bucked this trend, preferring to use Western models for development without paying obeisance to its cultural hegemony.

Yet while both countries have remained culturally insular, both have been successes based on rapid industrial growth and clearly on industrialization that is synonymous with the West. The history of the industrial revolution—as it makes its way through Britain, Germany, France and thence to the US, all the way to the IT revolution of the late 20th century—was writ almost entirely in Western nations. Technological innovation synonymous with development has been West-centric, as also soaring freedoms to imagine, which is guaranteed by greater individual freedoms of expression.

The subtext is that we have to choose not between modernity and westernization. Eventually we must choose an approach that is not binary but accommodates both our animal needs as well as the human spirit. We could do with the West’s rational, pragmatic, inclusive approach in our economics; our human sensibility index could be fine-tuned to grate away our resistance to change and an almost primitive disregard for equal opportunity.

Between the binaries lies a third culture that doesn’t even have to be the godless secularism of Kamal Attaturk in Turkey. That is just not doable in India. In as much as Nipponization worked for Japan and the uncharacteristic embrace of capitalism did for the Chinese we need to marry a pragmatic economics with our need for old social structures. Coyness is not a Narendra Modi virtue and for once the BJP frontman may have laid his finger on the right issue. The challenge will be grappling with this cactus of polyphony and crafting a modern discourse rooted in Indian structures.

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Published: 17 Jul 2013, 12:41 PM IST
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