Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | India’s search for a role model after America’s decline

In the end, if everything works out well, if the theories of economists and other scholars actually turn out to be correct, every nation will become New Zealand. That’s all there is to strife.

Where is any nation headed? What is the meaning of all the debates, speeches, elections, “institutions", fundas, activism, tweets and columns? The prophecy of New Zealand. What happens to a society after capitalism works out very well? New Zealand. Maybe with slightly broader roads and cycle lanes. If you have never been there, just imagine your idea of a government-run paradise, and add cops and inertia.

So, is New Zealand a role model for India? We have never heard that, never felt that way. India’s aspiration, as voiced by all sorts of Indians, is what New Zealand currently is, yet India has never considered that island country a model. There is a perception that a nation’s role model has to resemble it. In some significant way, like race or culture, but chiefly in heft. This is very different from how individuals think. The role models of people usually have nothing in common with their fans.

Who then is India’s role model? Which prosperous happy nation does India broadly aspire to be? What is our goal? Which nation does India imitate the most? What did India’s response to the pandemic tell us about whom we imitate?

The United States was for long the best candidate. Even in the 80s, when politicians and academic theoreticians made it look like India wished to be like Russia, no one else believed that. To be USA was a more worthy and even realistic goal. It seemed more relevant than Britain. Just over a decade ago, The Times of India considered abandoning British spellings for American.

But is the United States what India aspires to be anymore? The US has declined in prestige. The extreme success of democracy in reflecting public opinion has not resulted in what naive writers prophesied. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Hyper-democracy has turned American politics more chaotic than India’s. Even the articulation of its intellectuals that we once thought was a humanitarian force has now been revealed as a place where charlatans hide. And its police appears to be more dangerous than ours. And, who would have thought the US will manage a pandemic worse than India?

The prestige of Britain had declined a few decades ago. Even though it is more endearing than the US, from a modern Indian point of view, it has lost its glory and menace. Also, the new Indian middle classes despise its cultural symbols, not because Britain had once colonized India, but because those relics remind people of their despicable aristocrats. On the other hand, Americans have successfully marketed the ambiguous fact that it is a paradise for “hardworking" underdogs.

Western Europe was never in contest. It was considered too dissimilar, unattainable and beyond imitation, like New Zealand.

It may not be so apparent this month, but the fact is that in the past decade, the Indian middle classes had begun to adore a new aspirational model: China. India has had only three serious role models—Britain, the United States and China. And for the public and a section of politicians China was the most attractive.

The new urban Indian middle classes had an overt and covert love for the fact that China did not ail from democracy. It didn’t attach any importance to freedom of speech and journalistic freedom.

People who earn a living from freedom of speech have always made it appear that the freedoms they value the most are also valued by others. This was never true. Most people don’t care. In fact, people are more intolerant to freedom of speech than governments. In any case, India, for all its imitations of the West, was never truly free. For an artist, there is an ambiguous ban on talking freely about religions, caste, language and sex. India is a paradise for those who claim to be offended.

China’s recent successes are a result of a good imitation of its role models: United States, and, to an extent, Japan. China imitated or stole American technologies very well. In the past, east Asia prospered through an efficient imitation of Western capitalism and culture. Japan itself prospered by revering the United States. India, meanwhile, has had a more confused approach.

Nehru’s India had copied socialism and communism poorly. It imported all the bad parts, but did not implement the good parts, like investing in primary education, universal healthcare, social equality and public freedoms for women. India has imitated capitalism, too, in a confused manner.

Today, India does not have a clearly defined role model. It is a bit of this, a bit of that. Is it time then for India to quit living the destinies of other societies and find its own vision? That will require a modern philosopher to lead India who can also win elections. An outlandish expectation. For now, what is practical is for India to use other successful nations as anti-models. What have advanced nations taught India?

Wealth will always be unevenly distributed; The very meaning of wealth is in its uneven distribution; Prosperity deepens a sense of misery because it lowers the threshold for what qualifies as misery; There will always be strife because elite losers will recruit the impressionable to rebel on some moral pretext; Universal education does not result in an intelligent population; Most people want to be good, but they prefer evil to the people they despise.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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