A constant refrain of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last eight years has been that of India as the "vishwaguru" or the spiritual mentor to the world. It has become an overused figure of speech, and it is sounding hollower than ever because all that India has to offer is land and cheap labour, apart from a handful of highly qualified CEOs. The prime minister and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have time and again pleaded with American and European captains of business and industry to invest in India, and it has not fetched any significant results so far. But in his enthusiasm to project Brand India, Modi has been projecting India as the great giver, whether it be in terms of Covid-19 vaccines or wheat.
They turned out to be premature claims. India has shared about 200 million Covid-19 vaccines, out of which 140 million were commercial transactions. And wheat exports had to be restricted because there was not enough wheat to meet supply fluctuations at home. There is nothing ignominious in selling vaccines or restricting the export of wheat, but it is embarrassing to claim that India is saving the world by doling out vaccines and wheat to the needy. There are limits to a sales pitch before it loses its punch.
Prime Minister Modi addressing the second global Covid-19 summit last week, talked of reforming the World Health Organization (WHO) and speeding up the process of clearing the new vaccines, a hint at how clearance for Bharat Biotech's Covaxin got delayed. A day later, United States President Joe Biden speaking at the summit, promised to transfer 11 Covid-19 vaccine technologies, which can then be manufactured in other countries as the American government holds the patent for the spike protein. The Indian government should be holding the patent for Covaxin because Bharat Biotech collaborated with the National Institute of Virology (NIV) at Pune to produce Covaxin. India has its own compulsions, and it would be unfair to compare it with what America can do. Modi had also promised at the Glasgow climate summit last September that India will provide 5 billion vaccine doses in 2022, which was not a realistic promise.
India-as-vishwaguru-mantra perhaps is meant to fire up the imagination of Indians to do better. On the contrary, it seems to be making Indians arrogant and complacent without any achievement to show for the arrogance. The more dangerous aspect of this vishwaguru syndrome is the feeling that Hinduism is a superior religion compared to the rest. Inadvertently, the vaunted Hindu tolerance turns into contempt for other religions. It is perhaps inevitable for the Shankaracharyas, the Vaishnavite jeeyars, and other orthodox Hindus to believe in the superiority of their own variant of faith. But it cannot be made into a national and political mantra without deleterious effects.
India has been engaged in catching up with the West for 200 years, ever since Bengal's Hindu reformers bravely fought for the abolition of sati, the obnoxious practice of burning upper-caste widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands in the early 19th century, and we are still fighting the evil of untouchability in the 2020s. It can be said that modern and developed Europe and America are still fighting racial discrimination and abuse, but India cannot claim to be at the same level of spiritual development as the materialist West.
The Hindu nationalists have created an attitude problem for themselves because their boasts do not tally with their capabilities or achievements. The gung-ho nationalism is good for the crowd in a cricket stadium or TV studios, or at election rallies, but it does not bode well if it overflows into schools and universities, factories, and offices. The fierce nationalism that marks the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese is reflected on the shopfloor and not just on the streets.
Modi and his colleagues in the government and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot get off the high horse of vishwaguru rhetoric because getting on it requires no skill but to get off it, you need both skill and sagacity. It is quite unlikely that the prime minister and his colleagues will change their ways because it has brought them rich electoral dividends. But persisting with it will create unwanted culture wars within the country and outside. Inside the country, the culture wars as directed by Hindu nationalists will lead to constant friction with Muslims and Christians and also between language groups, especially in the form of Hindi and the rest of the Indian languages. Abroad, it would mean that we fail to respect the civilisational values of Christian Europe, Islamic Middle-East and Confucian China. It is a great loss to India that we do not understand other countries and civilisations, which is necessary to respect them and collaborate with them. The cultural self-centrism that the Vishwaguru attitude breeds is not just solipsistic, but it also affects India's ability to look at the world's diversity with respect.
In the decades of national awakening in colonial India, it made sense when the intelligentsia highlighted and defended the achievements of ancient India. But many Indians seem to believe that the pinnacle has been reached a long time ago, and you cannot do anything better. There is no greater inhibitor of scientific and technological, philosophical, and literary achievements. Indian tycoons are not desirous of going to the moon or Mars, of breaching new frontiers in space. From a time when Indians had no sense of history to the present moment when we have willingly become prisoners of history, it seems to have been intellectual regression of disturbing proportions. If India wants to be the vishwaguru, it cannot be on the basis of its past wisdom but on the basis of its present and future achievements.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.