Modi and Indian exceptionalism

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Modi and Indian exceptionalism

Wednesday, 08 June 2016 | Anirban Ganguly

Modi and Indian exceptionalism

The Prime Minister has laid the foundation for a grand narrative of India. He has spoken about the country being civilisationally distinct, but his concept of Indian exceptionalism goes beyond harmonising with the world and aims to weave coalitions of cultures

From Tokyo to Madrid and from St Petersburg to central Java, a renewed interest in civilisational India is unmistakable. It is only the intellectually purblind, the negatively motivated and the debunker of civilisational India who doubt or cast aspersion on those who speak of the rise of India as a civilisational state.

In the last two years, through a dynamic, calibrated and strategic outreach to the world, India aspires to weave a grand narrative of its own. Those who laugh off such a hope and aspiration as misplaced and irrelevant will do well to wait for the day when the need for a grand narrative and the aim of pursuing such a goal will be considered and counted as legitimate and rightful. In some measure, that time has arrived.

The nearing second international Yoga day and the growing number of Yoga enthusiasts who shall fill every park and public space across the world on June 21, is a good occasion to reflect on the increasing interest in India, in its systems of knowledge, of practice and of thought. Across the world, the keenness to know and engage with India is palpable.

The Heidelberg summer school at the South Asian Institute (SAI), for example, is increasingly becoming popular, one has often read of its popularity in the last few months. The demand for India’s languages, the interest in its art forms and in its traditional medicine and healing systems have seen a large number attend the Heidelberg summer school from across Europe and the world. There is a growing demand for replicating more such experiments across the continent, despite the challenges of resources and of a rapidly changing demographic scenario.

A senior academic in SAI, who has worked on India for years, pointed out that the traditional healing systems of India were a repository of knowledge which needed to be re-explored and preserved and was enthusiastic and hopeful that with the efforts of the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, such a thing would now be proactively worked upon. He wanted his students to visit India, to see these traditions for themselves and absorb these.

There is hope in the affirmative approach that is now being taken to reach India, civilisational India, across the globe. This affirmative approach has gathered momentum and credibility because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s incessant and unfailing approach is one, which, while reiterating the importance of strategic convergence, also recognises and lends equal weight and attention to the need for a civilisational convergence, especially with India’s potential civilisational allies.

In central Spain, for example, at one of the oldest universities in the ancient town of Valladolid, when the professors were explained the innovative Global Initiative for Academics Network (GIAN), undertaken by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, there was a palpable interest and positive inquisitiveness on how the university could involve itself in such an initiative and how its faculties could engage with young minds in India.

While a certain blinkered and communist ideology dyed section has only worked to deconstruct civilisational India and continues to oppose any genuine attempt at articulating an Indian grand narrative, the intelligentsia across the world at large — not those whose minds have already been polluted or conditioned through years of association with the breaking India type of intellectuals — seems to have a renewed hope in their efforts to study and internalise India. This itself is heartening and augurs well for those who toil and hope to see a fresh Indian narrative emerge on the world scene. Though the road ahead is a long and hazard filled one, the beginning has been made, despite resistance and roadblocks from a voluble and powerfully entrenched section in the academia and beyond.

In Russia, the still lingering admiration and amazement at civilisational India is hard to miss. One met young scholars who were eagerly learning Indian languages, conversing in Bengali and Sanskrit, and rejoicing at the thought that the possibilities may soon multiply. Senior indologists and India experts in Moscow, for example, called for setting up an India institute — an institute that could be named after BR Ambedkar, Ashoka or Swami Vivekananda with the aim of promoting the study of India. The Confucius Institutes were becoming monotonous, often overbearing and at times without life some observed.

Similarly, in Southeast Asia, as Kishore Mahbubani, a professor at the National University of Singapore noted, India’s relation with this region was a match that was made in heaven, and one needed to pay sufficient attention to it. What was needed was a long-term policy to rejuvenate India’s deep cultural bonds with the region. In a region where India’s civilisational footprints cannot be missed, where the Trimurti is still revered and celebrated — Indonesian President Joko Widodo, for example, is encouraging efforts by Indonesians to link to and discover their civilisational past — there is hope for a rejuvenation.

I have argued that in the last two years, the founding blocks, or the foundational pillars of creating an Indian grand narrative have been erected. For a civilisational state to rise and to re-invent itself, it is essential to create an engaging grand narrative. My friend, scholar and thinker Rajeev Srinivasan, for example, has spoken of the need to articulate “Indian exceptionalism” and work towards it through the formulation of a grand narrative that essentially traces, articulates and re-calibrates the rise of India as a civilisational state. There is a need to make a distinct and well-thought out position for “Indian exceptionalism.”

In the last two years, through his projects at home, initiatives, and outreach abroad, Prime Minister Modi has done something distinctly along those lines. He has laid the foundation for the creation of a grand narrative and through his articulations and exhortations, has often pointed at the crystallisation of “Indian exceptionalism.”

He has spoken about India being civilisationally distinct, he has spoken of the unique worldview of Indian civilisation — especially its environmental consciousness and conflict avoidance propensities, and he has described India’s past position in the comity of nations while indefatigably describing its present potentials and capabilities.

However, for Modi, it is also an Indian exceptionalism that seeks to harmonise itself with the world, with its neighbours and seeks convergence and civilisational allies while aiming to weave coalitions of cultures. It encourages and welcomes the rise of many powers in a multi-polar world, and emphasises interconnectedness rather than expansionism. Indian exceptionalism, as Modi seeks to articulate it, does not aim at widening faultlines or in lighting fires across civilisations, or in hectoring and denigrating other collectivities while trying to fulfil ones quest for paramount and unrivalled power.

It believes in a partnership cemented on the power of faith and friendship with a civilisational basis. Prime Minister Modi’s articulations and engagements  specially on the external front has inaugurated the era of Indian exceptionalism — that process is unmistakable and irreversible.

(The writer is director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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