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Pankaj Mishra’s Intellectual Dishonesty

with 10 comments

Pankaj Mishra writes an opinion piece for Outlook‘s India at 60 issue , seemingly cautioning on excessive championing of and reveling in India’s current resurgence at the cost of insensitivity to myriad problem that still plague the country. I say seemingly because that’s how he starts, and then meanders along without meaning much, while ending with a totally different point.

Mishra’s initial contention is that much of the current western world press are feeding a mistaken delusion of India’s potential to be a global economic, political and even cultural superpower (replacing the US). This he claims, is in the self-interest of Americans and that as Indians we should not avoid reality-checks (he even goes as far as to suggest that India will never really be able to achieve US’s geopolitical hegemony, and therefore should not aspire to). Finally, in an act that could only be described as self-fellatio, he claims that the ‘intelligentsia’ (such as him) are the only ones that can protect India from impeding doom of future development!!!

I could point out everything that’s wrong with the picture, but let’s just say that I have no issues with parts of Mishra’s theory: India faces numerous problems (particularly in public health and infrastructure) such that one should not get carried away by hyperboles. Unfortunately, by attacking a straw man of chauvinistic nationalism, Mishra is being intellectually dishonest. For example, he says:

Abruptly now, Time, Newsweek and Foreign Affairs hail India as a ‘roaring capitalist success story’, hoping that the country will be the US’s new ‘strategic partner’.

Plainly, the American business and foreign policy establishments have no choice but to seek new markets and allies in an uncertain post-9/11 world.

or, when he says:

At almost every level this nationalism seems to stem from a desire to achieve the kind of full-spectrum dominance the United States enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century,

Firstly, I find nothing wrong with aspiring for the political or economic success a country like US enjoyeds. Secondly, there are certainly some fervent nationalist (possibly those who keep spamming my Inbox with Mera Bharath Mahaan-type chain mails), but even in the feel-good articles he talks about, there is always a cautionary note about India’s drawbacks. In fact, I would say that in the very recent times, most articles on India in the Western press have tended to highlight shortcomings or negative aspects e.g. this earlier WSJ article I had talked about (and one could find more in Times, The Economist etc). Ironically, Mishra forgets that it was an American newspaper (albeit the New York Times) that asked him for a story on India’s problems !

And speaking of that article, Mishra is not happy with people who criticized him. But he employs a classic deflective tactic – rather than providing straight answers, you redefine the criticisms as symptoms of the critic’s low self-esteem and insecurity:

Imbued with this confidence, I am startled by the insecure and anxious nationalism I often find among many well-educated Indians: a self-esteem that is evidently so fragile that it can be undermined by a single dissenting article in the New York Times.

Anyhow, the opinion piece is further peppered with mind-numbingly inane assertions such as ‘Faced with imminent decline, great powers like the US become particularly prone to ideological illusion‘ – do read in full, at least for the entertainment value.

For sheer ludicrousness though, this one takes the cake:

the political temper of India’s intellectual class has remained largely liberal and tolerant—an admirable fact given that a relatively brief and limited experience of terrorism and immigration has swung large sections of the intelligentsia in western Europe and America to the Right.

(emphasis mine)
Now this is absolutely news to me – unless you consider Micheal Savage, Limbaugh and O’Reilly as the epitomes of western ‘intelligentsia’. Btw, the UK might have something to say about their ‘brief and limited experience’s with both immigration and terrorism.

Eventually, Mishra provides a solution – himself (not in so much words, but pretty much) !!

Happily, few countries seem more intellectually equipped than India. Travelling in China recently I met many academics and writers who confessed to me their envy of such Indian thinkers as Ashis Nandy, Arundhati Roy and Amartya Sen who could eloquently criticise the status quo in world politics and economy and outline a new vision of human possibility.

Indeed, the global Indian intelligentsia comprising of writers, economists, historians, sociologists and political theorists is as much,
if not more, impressive than the much written-about ‘pool’ of Indian scientists and engineers.

And the Chinese are right to admire it.

Perhaps I am not the most unbiased person to comment, coming as I do from the lowly pool of scientists, but two points anyway. One, the Chinese admiration perhaps stems a bit from jealousy at the fact that Mishra et al can say a lot of stuff without getting jailed for it. Second, Mishra thinks its wrong for Indians to take so much pride in some of the achievements and progress the country has made, yet he basks in self-glory and randomly slaps a sweepingly superior tag on the so-called Indian intelligentsia. The supreme irony of it !


PS – I know I am dumb (not being part of the intelligentsia has its drawbacks), but someone please explain to me what the title means: ‘Superman Never Returns‘.


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 13, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Posted in India, MSM

10 Responses

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  1. […] Sadly, the pondit isn’t too amused… […]

  2. Tsk Tsk…the ‘undue advantage for India’ rant by Commie lovers again.


    August 13, 2007 at 8:11 pm

  3. Havent read the piece yet so this is a bit of generalization but Mishra’s a born whiner. Granted I’ve only read An End to Suffering but I’ve never wanted to give someone a good shake so much! So I’d just take him with a pinch of salt myself. And um Superman Never Returns… coz his radar is jammed? I dunno.


    August 14, 2007 at 4:12 am

  4. If you are DUMB stop making smartass comments then. Pankaj Mishra is a very important public intellectual we’ve got. If you dont know what superman or ubermensch means, step into some light and, go read Nietzche. People who dont get Mishra dont know India and are just wankering in their attics.


    August 14, 2007 at 9:51 am

  5. Good post…

    “Travelling in China recently I met many academics and writers who confessed to me their envy of such Indian thinkers as Ashis Nandy, Arundhati Roy and Amartya Sen who could eloquently criticise the status quo in world politics and economy and outline a new vision of human possibility.”

    Is it just a coincidence that all three are decidedly left-leaning, and that Roy is even a leftist extremist in some aspects? The problem with people like Mishra (and I say this especially with reference to his most recent book, ‘Temptations of…’) is that they seem to believe that a minority cannot be at fault because of its very existence as a minority. Then it becomes very easy for them to don the guise of secular righteousness and castigate the majority. I have also seen BBC writers on India have the same mindset when they write about India. Don’t criticise Muslims even though it is obvious that all terrorists almost without exception are Muslim, because by default, they cannot be at blame since they are a minority. By adopting such stances, these people simply foreclose critical debate. Well…


    August 14, 2007 at 5:04 pm

  6. Late comment. Pankaj Mishra’s moaning is so predictable that it does not offer much entertainment value any more. Remember his radio session with Atanu after the Bombay blast where he tried to link that episode with havenots being left behind by economic growth?

    I do get the “growth is necessary, but not sufficient” and “multiple models to grow, and we must pick sustainable models” lines of arguments, although the focus is so much more on insufficiency than on necessity that one begins to wonder. However, the worst are the insinuations of “growth is bad because it must inherently increase inequity and instability” especially because they are often just hinted and not spelled out in words and numbers you could argue with and especially when you keep 43 years of under-performance in mind.

    One last note about his comment on western intellectuals turning right. I do not think he is referring to Rush, O’Riley et al. He seems to have ‘liberal hawks’ such as Hitchens, Rushdie, Zakaria etc. The assumption that their right-turn was solely triggered by 9/11 and immigration is naive, and possibly dishonest.


    August 18, 2007 at 9:12 pm

  7. After reading ole punkass’s article I got really irritated and decided to see if anyone else felt the same way as I did. I was delighted to see your thoughts and I found a hilarous piece written about the same article here –
    appropriately titled I think – Bonsai Brain or the homespun hypocrite.

    We’ll never know about Superman I guess. I really want to know what that is all about though.


    August 22, 2007 at 11:53 am

  8. […] a mere drop in the Indian pool of engineers-turned-MBAs, I cannot come up with anything more than cuppax fundaes. However, I am always anxious to offer my […]

  9. […] a comment » I have ranted before about Pankaj Mishra’s intellectual dishonesty, but his latest piece in the New York Times in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, can only […]

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