Pankaj Mishra’s Intellectual Dishonesty
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 enjoy
eds. 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.
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‘.