Globalisation and nationalism

IT IS fashionable to argue, especially amongst the Left, that globalisation and belligerent Hindu nationalism are two sides of the same coin. This argument is premised, in part, on a historical conjuncture. During much of the 1990s, India's integration into the world economy and Hindu nationalism seemed to rise in tandem. In part, this association was a consequence of the fact that Hindu nationalism seemed so effectively to be able to mobilise a globally mobile and well-networked diaspora for its own ends. It received funds from them, used their considerable social and intellectual influence for its ideological purposes. And what could be better proof of the thesis that integration into the larger world economy generates an identity crisis that feeds into a belligerent nationalism, than the fact that the most successful of Indians seemed to be susceptible to Hindu nationalism?

While this association of globalisation with the rise in Hindu nationalism had surface plausibility, the evidence of their interconnection is thinner than is normally supposed. For one thing, this thesis assumes that there was something extraordinarily distinctive about nationalist politics during the 1990s. In actual fact, Hindu nationalism has a long and powerful pedigree that predates globalisation and was squarely a product of causes that have little to do with globalisation: the politics of paranoia that the Congress fuelled during the 1970s and 1980s, the uncertainties in the economic outlook that were produced by the lack of reform rather than as a result of it, and a brilliant technique of political mobilisation perfected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, all of which had little to do with globalisation.

It is true that there has been considerable support for the BJP amongst the NRIs (non-resident Indians) but the extent of this support is vastly exaggerated, and is based on a few canonical instances of fund raising rather than any real evidence. At the very least, the globally mobile NRIs are statistically not likely to be more susceptible to Hindu nationalism than the locally trapped lower middle classes the BJP also draws upon.

One lesson we ought to have learnt from the failures of Marxism is to be cautious about attributing political outcomes and choices to over-determined systemic causes such as globalisation. There is no convincing and determinate connection between globalisation and Hindu nationalism. On the contrary, it is more plausible to argue that the fact that Hindu nationalism rose to prominence in the context of globalisation has actually softened, rather than hardened, its edges. This is so for a number of reasons.

There is no doubt that greater integration into the world economy, or even the aspiration, transforms an understanding of national interest. Think of two scenarios. In the first instance there is an emerging nationalist party, with significant anti-minority sentiment. But this party has none of the following aspirations. It does not feel obliged to send signals that can attract foreign investors and depositors, its routine engagements with the outside world are episodic rather than spread across a wide range of domains, it sees international rivalries as a zero sum game, has little potential for learning from the rest of the world and thumbs its nose at international institutions and norms.

In the second scenario, the same nationalist party, with similar anti-minority sentiment, comes to power in a context where it has to recognise that the health of the economy and, by implication, national power, depend upon a certain level of international credibility. It recognises the need to attract investment and have a plausible face to carry in forum after forum. It learns quickly that mutual interdependence is a surer path to national power than autarky, that power is not a zero sum game and that the international system can be engaged with only in terms of reciprocity. It learns that a mere declaration of sovereignty cannot be confused with real power, and that there might be something to be learnt from how other nations got to be influential. It does not take much to figure out in which scenario the nationalist party will be forced to tame its belligerence.

It would be complacent and false to believe that integration into the world economy will tame fanatical nationalism by some over determined logic. Nationalism and anti-minority sentiment are products of political choices and these choices can be exercised often against the national interest. There is no guarantee that the BJP will not, if it faces uncertain political prospects, choose to exhibit its more dangerous side. But it can be argued that insofar as the BJP seems to be acting moderately, globalisation is a contributing factor to that moderation.

For one thing, greater integration into the world has made the BJP a little more solicitous of India's image. India always cared a good deal about what the rest of the world thought of it but it now cares for a more tangible measure of its success: its ability to attract investment and jobs from overseas. It is difficult to think of this as mattering unless India had greater aspirations to integrate into the global economy. In subtle ways, the desire to present India in a certain light has forced the Government to confront questions about India's credibility; it has nudged it to make sure that India gets the headlines for the right reasons.

Take another area of promise: the burgeoning free trade agreements within South Asia, including the prospect of South Asian Free Trade Area, an important means towards regional peace and stability. It is difficult to even contemplate a discourse on free trade agreements in the region independently of a context where these economies were not thinking of globally integrating. SAFTA is far from being done, but if a modicum of regional peace comes to the sub-continent, globalisation will have a lot to do with it.

Belligerent nationalism feeds on a politics of anxiety. Compared to the early 1980s, the politics of anxiety seems to have diminished in intensity. This is, in no small measure, due to two factors. India has become more confident of its ability to deal with the rest of the world, and it is difficult to imagine this confidence in the absence of the process of globalisation. Rather than producing an identity crisis, globalisation has given an opportunity to India to feel less insecure. In an autarkic world, we had no sense of how we might prove our possibilities. Globalisation, by providing opportunities for international success, has made that anxiety less pressing.

Arguably, the diaspora and globalisation have, at least for the time being, helped India to ensure that balance of payments crises are things of the past. It is not accident that despite high fiscal deficits, the BJP can think of doling out huge sops without running the risk of inflation or a run on the currency. If we did not have these foreign exchange reserves, our economic policy options would be even fewer than they are now. Governments would have no option but to mobilise on nothing but identity politics. At least, globalisation has given something of a cushion to governments to flirt with doling out goodies to various constituencies to shore up their power. Imagine how few options the BJP would have had if we were running a real risk of a balance of payments crisis or high inflation. Globalisation has helped ensure that our politics is a little more about economics than it used to be.

None of this is meant as a consolation to the victims of the murderous rampage in Gujarat. Nor can we be complacent that Gujarat will not be repeated; the sentiment that made those events possible is still widespread. The burden of this argument has been to suggest merely that it is not at all clear that globalisation exacerbates Hindu nationalism. It might even be the cunning of history that globalisation will contain its adversary, nationalism, and recast it in more palatable terms rather than energise it.