Nationalism has become the topic of debate, bookended by worsening India-Pakistan ties and a general election due by May.
In times of conflict, do our loyalties have organizational limits? If it’s a matter of professing loyalty, why should it be confined to one organization—in this case, the nation-state —alone? What about the family, tribe, caste in the case of some Indians, religion or, indeed, when it comes to it, the company you work for?
In a complex world that is more ‘globalized’ or integrated today than even 10 years ago, people are increasingly aware of their many identities: as noted above, from the village town or city, language or ethnic group, caste or religion, race, gender and sexuality to, of course, nation. Some of these loyalties arising out of identities can be in conflict with each other. Remember Tory grandee Norman Tebbit’s infamous ‘cricket test’ to measure a South Asian-born Brit’s patriotism by the team they supported in times of, not conflict, but Test cricket?
The very fact that this ‘test’ is largely consigned in England today to a dusty heap of relics from distant post-colonial years should serve as testament enough to the growing—if mostly intangible—influence of the shrinking world in our lives. I say intangible, yet if you add multinational corporations to the list of organizations mentioned above, this shrinking world—the product of many forms of globalization—immediately assumes a more tangible form. I wouldn’t have normally thought of the corporation as one of my many identities (profession, maybe), but some deep thoughts from a friend, a top executive in a multinational company, served as a reminder of the diversity of identities that are embedded in each one of us.
Increasingly, as India prepares for the next general election, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have begun to describe critics from opposition parties as “anti-nationalist"—particularly when the topic of debate is India’s reprisal against terrorism emanating from Pakistan. In the US, similarly, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its influence on US politics has been described as “anti-Semitic".
All Omar was doing, she said, was to “talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country." Clearly, multiple allegiances are acceptable in certain circumstances, less so in others. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, both Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush goaded nations to action, saying they were either with the US or against it.
Omar herself embodies multiple identities, a fertile ground for multiple allegiances, not unlike, say, the British-Indian watching a cricket match between India and England. She has been described as the first naturalized citizen from Africa and the first Somali-American to be elected to the US Congress. She is also a Muslim. Yet, though she has taken an oath of allegiance to the United States of America as an American Congresswoman, she came under attack the moment she called out the perceived divided loyalty of American politicians who lobby for Israel. “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that problematic…." she tweeted.
In 21st century democracies, citizens should be able to question governments and other organizations without fear of being branded anti-national. But what about corporations, in light of the ‘ethics and organizations’ question posed by my friend? What if, as an Indian executive, you were unhappy about your MNC employer investing in Pakistan? Should you resign? On what grounds? Presumably, that sense of conflict would only arise if and when your identity as an Indian, in that moment of crisis, suppresses other identities, allegiances and duties, such as making handsome profits for your company at all times.
If you were an Indian working for IBM or Coca-Cola in 1977, when India kicked them out following a disagreement over foreign investment rules (actually, the two MNCs may well have decided to leave when push came to shove), what would you do? Resign? If not, would you be acquiescent in your company’s decision to abandon your country?
You cannot expel every multinational company that does business with an unfriendly country, obviously. So there’s immediately a limit placed on your actions as a nation state in a globalized world. The multinational company transcends those national interests for the sake of its own profits, benefiting the host nation and its nationals, too. The employee’s national identity and interests, perhaps nurtured in a democracy, must take second place to the identity and interests of the corporation—a less democratic place. You may resign to protest the fact that your world-beating company does business with Pakistan (or China, which supports Pakistan). But while that may ease your conscience, whether it will lead to substantive behaviour change across the border is doubtful.
Organizations are predicated on the idea of coordinated effort—neither the army, nor the nation, government nor the multinational company will progress without that coordinated effort to ‘get somewhere’. Organizations feed upon and need each other. Companies do not like exiting nations—both IBM and Coca-Cola are back in India—because the very process of globalization requires governments and corporations to work in coordinated effort.
Where does this leave the conscientious citizen?
Perhaps, rather than narrow nationalism, we can serve our conscience better by nurturing a greater allegiance—to values. Recent history shows that companies can be persuaded, or forced, to observe best practice based on global values, such as human rights, freedom, the rights of indigenous people and environmental protection. In companies that work to promote such values, a conflict of allegiance is less likely to arise.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1
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