Never miss a great news story!
Get instant notifications from Economic Times
AllowNot now

You can switch off notifications anytime using browser settings.
Stock Analysis, IPO, Mutual Funds, Bonds & More

A new fantasy links Britain and India

While UK is having illusions of regaining national power, India is intoxicated by the belief that it can muscle its way to the global high table.

Jul 10, 2019, 11.30 AM IST
Today, as the extraordinary appeal of pipedreaming politicians such as Johnson and Modi proves, fantasy has become an ineradicable addiction for many of their citizens -- a way of coping with harsh and intransigent reality.
By Pankaj Mishra

The downbeat economic forecasts for Britain made in the early days of Brexit are finally beginning to come true. Yet Boris Johnson, Britain’s likely next prime minister, is determined to yank his country out of the European Union by Oct. 31. "Do or die,” he asserts, insisting with Churchillian pomposity that Britain can be made great again.

As the world watches aghast, Britain’s descent into political lunacy seems complete. But there is little point blaming, as many do, Johnson’s moral character or lack thereof. His illusions of regaining national power and wealth are widely shared across the Atlantic -- and beyond.

In India, a conviction that the country will soon be a global superpower have suffused popular culture as well as official discourse; it helped lead to the reelection last month of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who denigrates all previous Indian leaders and claims to be the only one equipped to fulfill India’s long-delayed tryst with destiny.

Economic growth is asthmatic, unemployment is the highest it’s been in decades and, in the latest phase of an unfolding environmental calamity, Chennai, one of the country’s largest cities, has run out of water. Still, as the Financial Times reported last month, India under Modi remains “a nation seemingly intoxicated by the belief that it can muscle its way to the global high table.”

Such a damagingly poor grasp of reality in both countries raises an urgent question: How did the world’s oldest and largest democracies succumb to extreme delusion?

Boosterish outsiders didn’t help. Western politicians, think tanks and commentators greatly exaggerated India’s prospects during the heyday of globalization in the mid-2000s. Much was made of its “new middle class” -- in reality, working people who had only just escaped acute poverty.

In the obsession with their increased buying power, little attention was paid to the lack of such collective goods as decent schools and hospitals. It is now clear that those looking for a friendly democratic counterpoint to communist-ruled China became too eager to promote India as effortlessly “rising,” ignoring the grave political, economic and environmental perils in its path.

Likewise, those dazzled by Britain’s cultural prestige tended to overvalue its democratic institutions, which have proven to be utterly sclerotic, and its self-serving ruling class, even if they didn’t miss the deep problems of its economic model: an overgrown financial sector, polarized job market and -- what was crucial in shaping the Brexit vote to leave -- regional inequality.

These external assessments in turn barely compared to the high value many Indian and British elites assigned themselves. Boosting themselves without inhibition, they became prisoners of a fantasy derived from 19th century: the century when Britain became the most powerful nation on earth, defining with its military and economic muscle abroad and political stability at home, the very meaning of national power and wealth.

Indian leaders promised their young population a similar kind of omnipotence; Brexiteers did the same to their aging base. Needless to say, anger and frustration were inevitable. For, regardless of what admiring foreigners said, and what Modi and Johnson might promise, the present and future of India and Britain are shaped by domestic choices made at crucial junctures in the past.

The failure of Britain to match in the 1950s and 1960s the postwar industrial strategies of Germany and Japan made it the long-term loser of World War II. India’s failure to invest in education and health, at the same time economies such as South Korea and Taiwan were building their skilled industrial labor forces, made it a permanent laggard in the race to build a labor-intensive manufacturing sector -- historically, a crucial precondition for superpowerdom.

Having made its fateful choices, Britain could, at best, manage its decline. India’s ruling classes ought to be devoting themselves exclusively to addressing the basic needs of their largely poor citizens: food, shelter, healthcare and education. Instead, they have busied themselves with projecting a vision of industrial and military strength, relying in the process on dodgy economic statistics and exaggerated claims about air strikes on Pakistan.

Today, as the extraordinary appeal of pipedreaming politicians such as Johnson and Modi proves, fantasy has become an ineradicable addiction for many of their citizens -- a way of coping with harsh and intransigent reality. But, as Brexit, a prolonged act of national hara-kiri, has already demonstrated, this is not only no way for a nation to live. It is a pitiful way to self-destruct.

Also Read

Indian women's hockey team lose 1-3 to Great Britain

Boris Johnson to be the new Prime Minister of Britain

In BBC interview, Prince Andrew accuser reveals details; asks Britain to 'stand beside her'

Brexit minister signs order to end all EU laws in Britain

Add Your Comments
Commenting feature is disabled in your country/region.
Download The Economic Times Business News App for the Latest News in Business, Sensex, Stock Market Updates & More.

Other useful Links

Follow us on

Download et app

Copyright © 2019 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service