Superpower fine, but can we provide food to all

We are, reportedly, on the threshold of becoming a ‘superpower,’ which is fine. But what is not fine is that we are doing precious little by way of laying the foundation for this global stardom.

It doesn’t carry conviction that a country can surge ahead, irrespective of the predicament and outlook of its people. History warns us that if meta narratives of global pre-eminence are pursued to the neglect of our collective stuff and status, superpower status may prove a Pyrrhic victory.

Much depends on what we mean by being a “superpower”. Is it a matter merely of having gigantic economic and military muscle? Should a superpower be no more than a global super cop? Doesn’t this coveted status also entail the responsibility to see the globe as one family – Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. If so, there are a few issues to address before we dream big.

First, there must be food for all. No one should have to starve or die of destitution. A country that fails to feed its people or meet their basic needs – safe drinking water, quality education, safety of life, limb and liberty and access to the four fundamental values enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution – justice, liberty, equality, frat-ernity – for all citizens, is far away from the status it believes to be a low hanging fruit.

Food is available to fewer people than we reckon. What farmers produce today is not food, but agricultural goods for the market. Much of what we consume today, as a result, is poison. Our pride in vegetarianism does not ensure that the vegetables we eat are not suffused with pesticides. This mocks the distinction between pests and people. Both consume the same poison.

The difference is that pests are supposed to die, and people to thrive, by eating the same stuff. The case of milk and meat products is hardly better. The food that we consume today illustrates the truth that corruption is a collective poison.

Sheer power – military and industrial – is not enough to be a superpower. St Augustine recounts the encounter between the chief of a band of pirates and King Alexander. Nabbed by the king’s navy, the pirate is produced before the then emperor of the world – or, in our lingo, the superpower. “How dare you disturb the peace of my seas?” thunders the king. “What is the difference between you and me,” submits the pirate. “I have only some scores of men and a few tiny boats; therefore I am a pirate. You have gigantic ships and countless soldiers; therefore you are called a king.”

The greatness of the people – our sense of belonging together anchored in the global relevance of our destiny, our resolute commitment to the core values of our spiritual culture and to the life of every Indian, irrespective of caste, creed, colour – is the necessary foundation for meaningful superpower-ship. It is particularly in this respect that we have to shake off the lingering baggage of our colonial past. Inferiority-superiority complex is its pesticidal legacy.

We were treated as an inferior race. The agents of our degradation have departed; but a degraded psyche lingers. So we remain divided along fault-lines of first-class and second-class citizens. This makes a mockery of the citizenship. Citizenship is meaningful only on the foundation of equality. It was this that made B R Ambedkar apprehensive about the health and viability of Indian democracy.

A misplaced love

There is, then, this other question of patriotism. A nation is, primarily, its people. To love India is to love her people. Our respect for the national flag must match our love for every citizen. A flag is a symbol, not a fetish. It should flutter in the breeze of
our oneness.

It is because we have separated love for India from love for her children that our roads are pockmarked with potholes, our treasuries leak, our track-record of implementing welfare programmes remains poor, and the commitment of the educated and the elite to serving the people – as against serving their own interests – remains bankrupt. The thought of an internally divided, spiritually impoverished nation seeking global stardom is uninspiring.

Surely, we have gained some ground in recent decades. The inferiority on account of being Indian, for example, that was palpable as one travelled overseas 30 ago, has almost vanished. Even so, there is a distinction between being valued as an “emerging market” on the one hand, and being respected as a great society, on the other.

Gandhi inspired global respect, despite our despised state as a subjugated people. The soul of a people shone through him. Gandhi was not just an individual. He was the projection, in a specific historical context, of some of the colours on the rainbow Spirit of India. Ambedkar reflected the same rainbow from a different angle.

Despite the rift between them, India is not Gandhi vs Ambedkar. India is Gandhi-Ambedkar. The fact that we fail, increasingly, to hear the harmony of their roles –both were liberators – beyond the dissonance of a dated adversarial interface between them, points to the poverty of our collective plight. 

There is, in short, a great deal to be done. Of course, India needs to be clean. But, as our sagacious President said, the dirt in our mind is a far greater problem than the dirt on our streets. Of course, we need to attract FDI. But it is even more important to invest vigorously in our people.

‘Make in India’ without the educational empowerment of every Indian could amount to the de facto re-colonisation of India; the focus, this time around, being on our cheap labour which is, in point of fact, a national insult. We forget all too easily that Quit India Movement and the wooing of foreign investors is far too closely juxtaposed in time; for what is seven decades in the history of a nation?

(The writer is Principal, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi)

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